After deep spiritual reflection, Chief Justice Michael Stailey has come to embrace his inner monkey.
Our review of Kung Fu Panda (Blu-Ray), published November 19th, 2008, is also available.
"There is no charge for awesomeness"—Po
There's something about Dreamworks Animation that plays to the lowest common denominator. It's bright, flashy, and topical for the 15 minutes of fame each of these films seems to garner. These creative endeavors, under the guidance of former Disney animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg, have not been without their box office successes—Shrek and Madagascar—but in the end, neither the characters or the stories possess the same kind of beloved legs that we've seen from the Warner Bros. shorts of old, the Disney features of yesterday, and Pixar films of today…until now.
Facts of the Case
Po (Jack Black, Tropic Thunder) dreams of being the newest member of China's legendary "Furious Five," but remains tied to his adopted family's heritage of the noodle business. He hasn't the heart to tell his father (James Hong, Balls of Fury) the truth, so he maintains his day-to-day drudgery, while dreaming of a bright and glorious future…one that may be closer than he thinks. When the prophesized return of the evil Tai Lung (Ian McShane, Shrek the Third) becomes imminent, Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim, Anna and the King) calls the residents of The Valley together for the naming of their new champion, The Dragon Warrior. Everyone suspects it will be one of the members of the revered Furious Five, but lo and behold the title is bestowed on Po, who literally falls from the sky and lands at the feet of the Master. However, gaining the title is only one one-hundreth of the battle, as this undisciplined and untrained diamond in the rough will require not only the guidance of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium), Tigress (Angelina Jolie, Beowulf), Crane (David Cross, Scary Movie 2), Monkey (Jackie Chan, Rush Hour 3), Viper (Lucy Liu, Lucky Number Slevin), and Mantis (Seth Rogen, Superbad), but their belief in him as well. Only then will he be prepared to face his destiny.
Perhaps the tease was a bit too strong. In no way is Dreamworks ready to go toe-to-toe with the mighty storytellers of Disney and Pixar, but Kung Fu Panda brings them one giant step closer. There's a soul to this film we haven't seen from them before. No longer are they just going for the sight gags or the rim shot. There's real character development, tangible evidence of pathos (a powerful tool of Disney's Nine Old Men), and actual danger to the lives of the principal cast. This is a coming of age tale whose focus is learning to survive and thrive outside your comfort zone by getting out of your own way.
As the story unfolded, I kept anticipating the moment when the film would fall apart in a sea of pop culture reference and fart jokes. That moment never came. Yes, I could have done without the cheap "shot to the crotch" gags, but the story keeps to the high ground, far away from the realms of Shrek 2 and Bee Movie. We're held rapt by the tension and fear of Tai Lung's prison break, drawn into the brilliant use of food as the key to Po's training, and knocked around by the penultimate battle between Shifu and his adopted son.
So what makes Kung Fu Panda different from the many Dreamworks adventures that came before?
Performance is one aspect. Yes, they are still employing celebrity stunt casting, but here most of the actors lose themselves in their respective roles. Randall Duk Kim sets the bar quite high as Master Oogway, the wise turtle whose insight is as slow to unfold and beautiful to behold as the blossom of the Lotus flower, and we're left wanting more. Dustin Hoffman picks up the baton and carries on dutifully as Master Shifu, whose character arc is as important (if not more so) to the story as Po's himself. This veteran actor, who's had very little voice acting experience, accomplishes more with this character than several of his recent roles combined. Not to be outdone, Angelina Jolie melds so seamlessly with Tigress you'll forget she's behind the character. It's a rare performer who can attain that chameleon stature and she does so once again here. Jack Black will never match that level, but continues to discover new and fascinating levels throughout Po's journey. Yes, you know it's Jack doing what Jack does best, but there's a softness and vulnerability to Po that cuts through the funny and exposes a profound sincerity, even though there are times you'll swear that he's channelling Jorge Garcia as Hurley on Lost. Then comes the dreaded performance dropoff, and it's a pretty big one. Granted, the remaining ensemble has very little to do, from a performance standpoint, but remember there are no small parts, only small actors.
David Cross makes the most of his moments, but Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan are little more than filler, and Seth Rogen…seriously? Talk about miscasting a role. I love where his career is going, but this one should have gone to someone like David Hyde Pierce or Jonathan Pryce…someone with gravitas to their voice. It just didn't work for me. Which brings us to Ian McShane. This man can out tough-guy 90% of the acting profession; past, present, and future. From first glimpse to the bridge encounter, Tai Lung is one bad mutha who will scare the bejeezus out of kids young and old. But then something bizarre happens. I don't know if it was script, performance, or direction, but Tai Lung trades in his razor sharp claws for Nerf Super Shooter and a Warner Bros. pie fight. By the time we get to the final big boss fight, we've devolved into Shrek-land, significantly dulling the edge of what could have been a much more powerful scene. If you're going to create a bad guy who can only be defeated by the most powerful warrior, you need to maintain that intimidation factor all the way through. Take a look at what Miguel Ferrer did with Shan-Yu in Disney's Mulan. There's one big bad who never let up, even when you thought he was dead to rights. This is Kung Fu Panda's biggest flaw. Kids don't need the goofy resolve to feel good about the film, and it cheapens the experience for adults.
Performances aside, another aspect that cements this film as Dreamworks' reigning champ is its artistry. Raymond Zibach (Ren & Stimpy) and his team's production design is stellar. The backgrounds are breathtaking, the sets are magnificently dressed and lit, the visual effects are mesmerizing (Oogway's exit in particular), and Buck Lewis and Nicolas Marlet's character designs are fantastic. There is a dimensionality here that goes beyond the smushy, bubble gum, computer animation we've seen from Dreamworks' previous efforts. They've done their homework on China and it comes through in every frame. This is a fascinating world that is sometimes more captivating than the principal action taking place in the foreground. Kung Fu Panda is worth a second look, just to let your eye wander the edges of the frame. I also loved the 2D animation transitions and credit sequences. It's a style reminiscent of Glen Murakami (Teen Titans) and Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack), but one that works incredibly well for these characters, and we'll see more of it in the bonus features.
The final aspect that gives Panda its wings is a grand score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell. Yes, there are quiet moments ("Oogway Ascends," "Peach Tree of Wisdom") that bring to mind Jerry Goldsmith's Mulan and Randy Edelman's Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, but this has a listenability all its own. And Cee-Lo's (of Gnarls Barkley fame) cover of Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting" couldn't be more perfect.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, this standard def presentation is as good as it gets. The colors are solid, the details sharp, and the effects are fluid. The audio is just as impressive, with 5.1 Surround tracks in English, French, and Spanish, there's plenty of ambient and directional effects throughout to keep the rear speakers active, the dialogue is clear and balanced, and the aforementioned underscore will fill your room with emotion. Only the die hard video/audio files will appreciate the upgrade to the film's Blu-ray release. For the general movie loving public, this one will do just fine.
And for once, this standard definition, 2-pack, special edition contains bonus material not available on its BD counterpart's release. I'm speaking of the second disc's animated short Secrets of the Furious Five. This new 24 minute film finds Po tricked by Master Shifu into teaching an entry level Kung Fu class to a group of baby bunnies. The 3D interludes are sandwiched by the stylish 2D origins stories for Mantis, Viper, Crane, Tigress, and Monkey. It's a cute story with great art, but suffers on two fronts. First, the dialogue for Po and Shifu (in particular) sounds like it was recorded in someone's bathroom, noticeably different than the interstitial tales. The second is the substitute performances for Mantis and Monkey. Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and David Cross all reprise their respective roles, while Viper and Tigress are regressed to children so new voices are required. But the absence of Seth Rogen and Jackie Chan is obvious. Okay, so the kids who this feature is designed for won't give a flying fig, but as an adult animation buff, it took me out of the story. Sorry.
The second disc also contains an array of time wasters for your little Kung Fu animals to explore…
"Learn to Draw"—Teaches kids how to draw their favorite character.
"Dumpling Shuffle"—The old shell game used to find the hidden dumpling.
"Pandamonium Activity Kit"—DVD ROM features: Game demos, sound machine, printables.
"Learn the Panda Dance"—Hihat, the diva of Hip Hop, teaches you the Panda Dance.
"Do You Kung Fu?"—Kids teach kids the basic moves for each of the styles the characters are based on.
"Inside the Chinese Zodiac"—Learn about the sign you were born under.
"Animals of Kung Fu Panda"—Discovery Kids style look at the reverence the Chinese have for the animals in their culture and the martial arts built around them.
"What Fighting Style are You?"—Interactive quiz to see which animal fighting style best suits you. I'm a monkey, which jives with my Chinese Zodiac sign.
Going back to the main disc, you'll find the meat of the extras are for the adults, with more a few more for the young'uns…
Audio commentary from directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne is fairly engaging and informative. My recommendation is to pace yourself with the extras, so start here before consuming the rest. Trust me, these extras aren't like Chinese food and you will suffer from bloat, if you're not careful.
"Meet the Cast"—Goes inside the recording sessions in standard EPK style. (13 min)
"Pushing the Boundaries"—Post-mortem on the technological challenges of the design and animation teams. (7 min)
"Sound Design"—The pulling together of a great live action design team to help create this world from scratch. Weaving a "sonic tapestry" by drawing upon a Kung Fu genre which is musical, rhythmic, and hyper-expressive. (4 min)
Music Video—The visual cover version of Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting" (1974) by Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo in the style of Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon.
"Mr. Ping's Noodle House"—The Food Network's Alton Brown stars in a featurette on the art of noodle making at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills. (5 min)
"How to Use Chopsticks"—Kids teach kids how to master the art and the etiquette of these legendary utensils. (3 min)
"Help Save Wild Pandas"—Jack Black explains conservation efforts to protect the panda species, as only he can. (2 min)
"Dragon Warrior Training Academy"—A set top game teaching you the skills possessed by each member of the Furious Five.
Dreamworks Jukebox—Favorite musical and comedic moments from previous Dreamworks animated films.
DVD ROM features
Whew…did you get all that? Remember, do not consume these all in one sitting. I'm a trained professional and it still knocked me on my behind.
Kung Fu Panda is more than just a screwball kids comedy. It possesses an undeniable heart and soul, often seen only in the respective canons of Disney and Pixar, with a touch of Ranma 1/2, modern sensibility, and a few too many bodily function jokes. If they remained disciplined, focused, and continue to push the boundaries of their craft, there may be a bright future ahead for Dreamworks Animation.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Stailey; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.