Kung Fu Panda


Kung Fu Panda

Sometimes we all need a little kick in the behind.

(2008) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Randall Duk Kim, James Hong, Michael Clarke Duncan, Dan Fogler. Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne

 

Dreams are generally not handed to you. In order to achieve them, hard work and sacrifice is almost always required. The question becomes how much are you willing to give in order to make your dream come true – and is it worth it.

Po (Black) is a big, goofy panda who lives in the Valley of Peace. The animals there live in peace and harmony, overseen by the benevolent temple on the highest peak guarding the town from those who would cause harm. Therein dwell the Furious Five, a group of five kung fu warriors of world renown. Po worships them and dreams of being one of them. However, he is the son of Ping (Hong) a humble noodle shop owner whose secret ingredient makes his noodles better than anyone else and Ping knows that Po’s dream is foolishness itself.

Within the temple is the Dragon Scroll, a parchment which explains how to become the Dragon Warrior, the ultimate kung fu practitioner. Snow leopard Tai Lung (McShane) wants this scroll not to become the valley’s ultimate protector but to dominate and become a cruel tyrant, wreaking revenge on the master who spurned his dreams.

Tai Lung has escaped from his prison and means to take what would not be given to him. The temple announces that their venerated abbot Oogway (Kim) is going to select the Dragon Warrior who will be given the scroll and the power to protect the Valley. The entire village ascends the mountain to see who will be accorded this great honor. Po is sent by his father to go sell noodles at the temple.

Everyone assumes that one of the members of the Furious Five will be chosen – Tigress (Jolie), Mantis (Rogen), Monkey (Chan), Viper (Liu) or Crane (Cross). Maybe it will be their venerated master, Shifu (Hoffman). However when Oogway chooses Po, the entire village goes into shock. Surely there must be a mistake.

Po has no training and it appears, no aptitude for Kung Fu. What he seems to be best at is eating, and he does that pretty much non-stop. Shifu figures that he can discourage the young panda out of becoming the Dragon Warrior and thus allow one of his more deserving students to achieve that honor. However, Tai Lung is approaching and time is running short. Will Po stay and find his inner hero? Or will he leave and watch from the sidelines as one or all of the Furious Five save the day?

Of all the  CGI animated features I’ve seen this is my favorite that doesn’t begin with the Pixar logo. Yes, I understand its faults and shortcomings but for whatever reason I connect with it. Maybe because I’m quite Po-like – I love to eat, I dream about being a superhero and I have a pretty laid-back nature most of the time (that sound you just heard was Da Queen snorting). The animation is also pretty impressive, from the faux Chinese landscapes to the rippling fur on Shifu, Tigress and Tai Lung.

The story is a bit rote and predictable and certainly is aimed at the Nickelodeon set. There is a good deal of physical humor, much of it revolving around Po’s weight and clumsiness (which some might argue reinforces stereotypes about overweight people, not necessarily a message we want to send to kids). Also, there is almost zero character development for everyone other than Po, Sifu and Tigress. Even Tai Lung really is given a kind of cursory character background as to why he is a villain. Most of the non-feline Furious Five all kind of blend together. Makes me wonder if they could have done a Terrific Trio instead.

There are some moments of real beauty – one involving Oogway and peach blossoms – as well as some imaginative fight scenes (especially the one between Po and Shifu involving a dumpling and chopsticks). This is a pleasing film aesthetically, enough so that parents won’t get bored when watching it for the umpteenth time with their kids.

In fact, the movie is much like it’s protagonist – kind of dumb, kind of lovable and ultimately it just steals your heart. Even if you aren’t into the old chop sockey movies that are clearly the touchstone behind the genesis of Kung Fu Panda you’ll still get a kick out of this animated classic.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous animation. Nice work by Black, Hoffman and McShane.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable story aimed squarely at less discerning audiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some action sequences which might overwhelm the littlest tykes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Hong, who voiced noodle shop owner Mr. Ping, is the son of an actual noodle shop owner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As with most hit kid films, there are plenty. The DVD came as a stand-alone or in a two-pack with the short animated feature Secrets of the Furious Five. The original DVD included featurettes on how to make noodles like Mr. Ping and a kid-centric instruction manual on how to use chopsticks. There’s also a Dragon Warrior Training Academy interactive game, a music video of the theme song, an animation video jukebox featuring songs from each of DreamWorks’ Animation Studio’s movies to that time, and a nice PSA  on saving wild pandas.  The two-pack also includes an instructional video on how to draw the characters from Kung Fu Panda, an interactive Dumpling Shuffle game, and fun featurettes on how to determine which Kung Fu fighting style is your own and how to figure out which sign of the Chinese zodiac you fall under. The Blu-Ray has all of these in addition to BD-Live downloadable content which includes a Day in the Life of an actual Shaolin monk and the opportunity to hear Po from various other language soundtracks. “Squidoosh” just sounds a whole lot of different in Swedish my friends.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $631.7M on a $130M production budget; the movie was a huge hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Tales From Earthsea

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Finding Nemo


Finding Nemo

Dude! Have you seen Nemo?

(2003) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett, Allison Janney, Austin Pendleton, Stephen Root, Vicki Lewis, Joe Ranft, Geoffrey Rush, Elizabeth Perkins, Eric Bana, John Ratzenberger. Directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich

 

You might think that being a clownfish is all fun and games, but it’s a dangerous ocean out there. Just ask Marlin (Brooks). He had it all — a beautiful home with a view, a loving wife, and a brood of kids on the way.

However, a chance predator takes out nearly everything, leaving Marlin with just one son, Nemo (Gould), and Marlin swears that nothing will happen to Nemo as long as daddy is around.

Time passes, and it’s time for little Nemo to head out to school. However, his overprotective dad has Nemo seeing red, and so the little fish with the half-formed fin ventures out farther than he should — and is caught by a dentist looking for a new addition to his tropical fish collection.

Doggedly, Marlin sets out to bring his boy home. He is aided by Dory (DeGeneres), a loopy bluefish with short-term memory loss that occasionally jeopardizes Marlin’s mission. But the plucky Dory sticks with him, and turns out to be a valuable ally, even with her problems remembering what happened just a few minutes before.

Meanwhile, Nemo is attempting an escape of his own, aided by several denizens of the fish tank, notably the only one among them who had actually lived out in the open ocean, Gill (Willem Dafoe). Marlin must navigate through the ocean’s natural dangers, ranging from a minefield of beautiful (but deadly) jellyfish, to a trio of sharks undergoing a twelve-step program to become, well, friendlier to fish.

The environment created by Pixar is even more enchanting than the undersea world of Disney’s other waterlogged animations, The Little Mermaid and Atlantis, mainly because it seems more real. The sequence with the current-surfing turtles is one of the best Pixar has ever come up with. In many ways, this is the most Disney-esque of the animated features Pixar has done, which, considering that director Andrew Stanton was responsible for A Bug’s Life – quite frankly the weakest Pixar movie to date – is not surprising.

Although Finding Nemo has gotten universally excellent reviews (including from my spouse Da Queen, who quite firmly stated that this is an Animation classic), I found it to be less engaging than the great majority of their films. While I can understand the popularity of the movie (and like DeGeneres, wonder when the inevitable sequel is coming), I just didn’t connect with it.

Albert Brooks has always struck me as kind of a poor man’s Woody Allen (making him, I suppose, a rich man’s Richard Lewis), somewhat neurotic and pessimistic, which suits Marlin well enough, but can get on the nerves over the course of 101 minutes. Dory is the best-drawn (excuse the pun) of the characters here; she is certainly handicapped by her memory problems, but never allows it to get her down. She turns out to be a loyal friend, something Marlin desperately needs.

Don’t get me wrong; the kids are going to love this, and adults will find some of it spectacular at times. Like nearly every Pixar movie, this one has enough subtext (particularly in the humor) to keep the attention of the big kids, and enough eye candy to keep the attention of the smaller kids. It was one of the big winners in the 2003 box office derby, and a big shot-in-the-arm for Disney’s flagging animated feature fortunes (particularly after the dismal performance of Treasure Planet). Pixar next released The Incredibles which even now is my favorite Pixar film ever, superhero geek that I am. You have every reason to see this movie, but be warned that at least for my part, I had a difficult time loving this as much as I have other Pixar movies. Perhaps therein lies my own problem – my expectations. You may want to go into this without any. You may enjoy it more than I did.

If you have kids, expect this to be a staple in your video library – if it isn’t now, there’s a good chance it will be at some point. No kids? You’ll still want to see some of the spectacular underwater scenes anyway and you’ll appreciate DeGeneres’ kooky performance.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous backgrounds and authentic undersea settings. DeGeneres makes Dory one of Pixar’s most memorable characters. Crush and the turtles make one of the most breathtaking segments Pixar’s ever done.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Marlin is a bit too neurotic to be an enjoyable lead. Is less compelling than other Pixar classics.

FAMILY MATTERS: Are you kidding? This is Disney…of course it’s perfectly suitable for the entire family!

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The waiting room in the dentist’s office was modeled after one near the Pixar studios in Emeryville, California.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The special edition DVD, like most Disney home video, is loaded with special features including the animated short Knick Knack which played in the theaters alongside Finding Nemo. There’s also an interactive game, a studio tour of Pixar Studios and a hilarious featurette called “Exploring the Reef” hosted by Jean-Michel Cousteau which purports to be a serious feature about the Great Barrier Reef but Cousteau constantly gets interrupted by characters from the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $867.9M on a $94M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster in every sense of the word.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: We Bought a Zoo

Oceans


Oceans

Underwater, turtles become sprinters.

(DisneyNature) Narrated by Pierce Brosnan. Directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud

The oceans are vast, covering nearly three quarters of our planet and yet humans have laid eyes on only 5% of it. It makes up the largest territory of our planet and yet what we know about what lives there is infinitesimal compared with what there is to know.

As our technology has evolved, so has our ability to study the creatures of our seas. Some, like the bottle-nose dolphin and the blue whale, are creatures who swim close to the surface and as a result, we’ve been able to study them at some length. Others exist at greater depths, or swim in places that are more difficult for humans to access. Even these remote places, however, are becoming more and more reachable with submersibles that can withstand greater pressures, high-tech scuba apparatus and underwater cameras that can take amazing footage.

This is the second in what is slated to be an annual Earth Day event by Disney’s nature documentary division (last year, they released Earth to much acclaim). While Disney is distributing these movies, it should be noted that both Earth and Oceans were made by documentarians in England and France, respectively and were financed and produced outside of the Mouse House.

Still, the images here are magnificent, from the stately blue whale migration to the antics of sea otters and dolphins, from the weird and mysterious spider crabs to the serene and beautiful jellyfish. There are orcas and sharks, to be sure, and gulls dive-bombing for sardines, clouds of krill and schools of yellowfin tuna. There are squid-like creatures undulating through the liquid world with scarf-like streamers trailing them like a Spanish dancer, and tiny eels dancing in a strange ballet on the ocean floor. There are beautiful clownfish darting in and out of the Great Barrier Reef and penguins in the Antarctic, clumsy clowns on the ice but graceful and sleek in the water.

In its own way, Oceans is a beautiful movie but I’m wondering if there isn’t a bit of overkill here. After last year’s Earth and the latest BBC/Discovery Channel epic nature documentary series “Life”, Oceans feels almost like too much of a good thing.

The other quibble is with the narration. Pierce Brosnan is a fine actor but he doesn’t make a great narrator; his voice lacks the gravitas of a James Earl Jones or even a Sigourney Weaver. In all fairness, the narration he is given to read isn’t very inspirational and lacked the humor Disney nature documentaries are known for.

Still, that’s not what you come to a movie like this for. You come for amazing images and to see things you’ll never be able to see with your own eyes. The way to approach a movie like Oceans is to let the images sweep over you, wash you away and take you to the deep blue. It is as alien a world as anything George Lucas has ever devised and yet it is on our doorstep.

Asking the question “What is the ocean,” as the narration posits at the movie’s beginning, dumbs down the movie. Unless you’re a very young child, you know what the ocean is and clearly Disney is going for parents with very young children. While young children will ooh and ahh over the pictures, they don’t have the attention span to last the entire 90 minutes of the film. The trick is to get the same sense of wonder from adults, which they do nicely. It then becomes unnecessary to talk down to the audience by asking them “What is the ocean” because the questions you want them to ask are “What more is the ocean” and “How can we help save it.”

There are sequences that are powerful, with a forlorn shopping cart sitting on the ocean floor (which led me more to wonder how on earth it got there) and garbage floating on the ocean’s surface sending the requisite ecological message which should have been stronger; a segment that showed species that are now extinct was excised for the American version. Perhaps Disney didn’t want children to dwell on the harsh realities, but then why show baby turtles being picked off by frigate birds if that’s the case?

The co-directors were responsible for the much-superior Winged Migration and to their credit to capture some amazing sequences, but quite frankly I wasn’t wowed. Oceans turns out to be less of an educational tool than a new age video, and to my way of thinking our oceans deserved a better movie.

REASONS TO GO: Some very spectacular and beautiful footage, as well as amazing behavioral mannerisms of creatures both familiar and unfamiliar.

REASONS TO STAY: Perhaps a victim of Earth’s success; didn’t stack up favorably. Brosnan’s narration didn’t carry enough gravitas.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfect viewing for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Perrin narrates the French version; his son Lancelot makes an appearance as the young boy in the movie’s framing segments at the beginning and the end.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the magnificent footage should be seen on a big screen for full effect.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Express