Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Kung Fu Panda: A Review

Kung Fu Panda is not a film about talking animals, it is a film about anthropomorphic animals; big difference (really.) The world of Kung Fu Panda is just like our own (if our world was ancient mythical China.) People own shops, have children, set off fireworks, and go to restaurants; except these “people” happen to be furry, or scaly, or covered in feathers.

Now I’m sure some of you out there can find some flaws in the idea of a society made of animals of all different shapes and sizes; all I have to say to that is, “shut up you smarmy cynical twit and enjoy it for what it is!”

Anyway -as I have already mentioned- a Chinese village is the setting for this movie; the village and the surrounding valley is protected by a team of martial artists called the furious five, made up of a Crane, a Tiger, a Monkey, a Praying Mantis, and a Viper (fans of Kung Fu will recognize these animals as representing real styles.)

Po, the main character, is a Panda (voiced by Jack Black); who idolizes the furious five from his father’s noodle shop (did I mention he is overweight and somewhat clumsy.) Things get set into motion when the wise Buddhist sage (a turtle, naturally) has a vision that Tai Lung, a very nasty snow leopard bent on revenge, will escape from prison. To counter this threat, the temple decides to appoint the Dragon Warrior, who naturally will read the Dragon Scroll, which holds the secrets to “limitless power.”

It is through this that Po is (literally) launch into history; and Po suddenly becomes central to the events in the story.

I won’t be exaggerating when I say I think this is DreamWorks’s best animated effort yet. Yes, Shrek was funnier and even had a lot of heart, but the constant cultural references have dated it. Kung Fu Panda is a completely self-contained world with the exception of a few kung fu movie references that won’t be noticed unless you’re looking for them); all the movies humor derives from the characters and story, nothing more.

And the story never feels at odds with the comedy; unlike DreamWorks films like Madagascar, whose story was a contrived vehicle for laughs; everything is consistent within the Kung Fu Panda universe, everything compliments everything else. Ultimately, this means the movie is funnier, more heartfelt, and more interesting.

The voice acting is another thing this movie gets right. I still don’t understand DreamWorks desire to attach big names to their animated movies; I’m just glad it worked this time. Never am I thinking that Po is Jack Black and that Angelina Jolie is Tigress. The characters break away from their voices, which is a great compliment to the filmmakers. Dustin Hoffman does a great job as Shifu, possibly the best voice acting in the movie (though I will never understand the movies decision to cast Jackie Chan in the role of Monkey, who only has maybe five lines in the movie.)

As for the themes of the film, there really isn’t much new here. There is some body-image issues it deals with, about self-belief and self-acceptance; nothing too new; but is done very well. I particularly like the revelation about the Dragon Scroll, and how it fits into the movie. I found it very positive and life-affirming. There is some Zen-Buddhist-esc platitudes thrown in there (and actually gets it right), but this is more to connect it to its Kung Fu movie origins then anything else.

The movie was ‘filmed’ in cinemascope, which gives it a unique look; the color palette is strong, the direction of the camera is tasteful (which is somewhat lacking in the animation world); all the characters are clean and well-designed, and the character motions are natural and fluid. In fact, the kinematics are some of the best I have ever seen in any American animated movie, it might even top The Incredibles in this regard.

This movie was fun because I wasn’t expecting much from it, and I ended up getting a very good film. Kids will like it for the Kung Fu, the colorful atmosphere and the comedy (which actually had me laughing out loud at points); parents might appreciate the good story and voice acting. Animation geeks will like it for obvious reasons. Kung Fu movie enthusiasts will gush over this movie.

There is a lot to enjoy here, it might not take as many risks as Wall-E, but it stands on its own as one of the strongest animated films to come out in the last few years. It makes me hopeful and exited about DreamWorks future as an animation producer; which is possibly the best compliment I can give it.

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