'Kung Fu Panda'
Reviewed by Lon S. Cohen
When I heard that Jack Black was going to star
in an animated Dreamworks production populated only by animal
characters playing a martial arts wielding panda, my initial
reaction was, “What the Fu?” But as the brilliantly
rendered characters appeared all over the Internet, followed
by clips and blips of animated sequences (and Jack Black-esque
comedy), my curiosity was peaked. By the time the theatre
darkened at show time, I was giddy as a schoolboy with anticipation.
is a panda. Not only that, he’s a panda who’s
in the family business of selling noodles to hungry customers.
And even more absurd, he’s a Panda with a stork for
a father (James Wong). Jack Black, playing Po, captures the
wild-eyed hero-worship that infects all of us at one time
or another, dreaming of joining up with his fantasy world’s
version of super stars, The Furious Five. His action figures
sit precipitously on the window sill of his small shack above
the little noodle shop in a town below the great temple where
Kung Fu is practiced by his heroes.
With Po the panda, as an unlikely hero, we all know what’s
coming: Somehow, someway, at sometime, Po will become a Kung
Fu master, trained by an ancient master (Dustin Hoffman),
and will vanquish a powerful villain. (Oops! Did I forget
to say Spoiler Warning ahead? Pretend you didn’t hear
that last part.)
While the plot of the movie is as destined as Steven Spielberg’s
paycheque, the comedy, touching story and exciting action
scenes are, if predicable, executed as deftly as a flying
split-kick. The deadliest move in the whole film is the detailed
CG rendering that in no way overshadows the brilliant cinematography
(can we use that phrase for an animated film?) and eye-popping
colours in the very authentic-looking scenery and sets. By
authentic, I don’t mean photorealistic rendering (thought
that is sometimes the case), I mean the beautiful, slightly
stylistic, yet very Asian influence that pervades the entire
production design. The details of the artwork were definitely
worked out on this one and I have to give credit to Dreamworks’
animation team. It is worth the price of admission (and the
fuel charge to get to the cinema) just for the visual experience.
On top of the lush imagery, there are some damn fine voice
actors, not in the least wasted on this effort. Sure, each
one, by him or herself, might be able to lead this film just
on voice talent and star appeal alone; there’s easily
a few century’s worth of acting experience between them.
Hell, Wong and Hoffman (sounds like a great name for an insurance
company!) are both old pros who increase the median age of
the cast by a factor of two all by themselves. Considering
the rest of the cast which is comprised of some serious surprises
– if, like me, you never even bothered to look at a
cast list beforehand, thinking that Jack Black was the only
star power in the film –it’s no small wonder that
the movie is doing so well at the box office.
The Furious Five are composed of Tigress (Angelina Jolie),
Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu),
and Mantis (Seth Rogen) all trained to compete for the title
of Dragon Warrior by their mentor, Master Shifu (Hoffman),
who is supposed to be either a raccoon, a shrew, or some other
sort of rodent. I am a big fan of Dustin Hoffman but the irony
of him playing the role of a diminutive, wise, rodent-like
creature is not lost on me. Even the master has a master and
that is Oogway the tortoise (Randall Duk Kim), the very ancient
Oogway plays the benign but firm Yoda role in the film, teaching
the teacher how to teach so that the student may learn how
to learn. And that’s exactly what happens.
When, either by mistake or some twist of fate, Po is chosen
by Oogway to be the prophesised Dragon Master, the Furious
Five must learn to step aside while Master Shifu struggles
to train the podgy, clumsy, blasé panda the subtle
arts. Meanwhile, an evil snow leopard named Tai Lung breaks
out of prison to seek his revenge on the town. The Rhinoceros
prison guards and their Rhino leader – voiced menacingly
by Michael Clarke Duncan as the warden – are beaten
by Tai Lung, displaying his immense mastery of Kung Fu. In
a very insidiously pleasing casting call, Ian McShane, who
played the even more insidiously pleasing character Swerengin
in the HBO Studios miniseries, “Deadwood”, plays
the bad guy to perfection.
Along the way, Master Shifu discovers what we have known
all along – chubby Po is motivated by food. Shifu uses
this knowledge in the final hour to train Po and prepare him
for the final confrontation with Tai Lung. I will not spoil
the secret ingredient in the Dragon Scroll, the noodles recipe
and the moral of the tale. Suffice to say that although clichéd,
it still satisfies.
Kung Fu Panda kicks the CG genre up a notch in everything
from voice acting, story telling, animation, design and comedic
timing. It’s an old-time fantasy story told with new
characters, in a new way, with a whole new pallet. If ever
there was a film to introduce the kids to the Asian fantasy
of Martial Arts, it’s this one.
What am I saying? It’s even better for adults.
And the fight scenes? Totally Awesome.