Judge Clark Douglas kung fu panders to Dreamworks' latest effort.
Our review of Kung Fu Panda / Secrets Of The Furious Five, published November 19th, 2008, is also available.
Prepare for awesomeness.
"Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That's why it is called the present."
Facts of the Case
The title character is a panda named Po (Jack Black, School of Rock), a martial arts geek who would like nothing more than to be a great Kung Fu warrior. Unfortunately, Po is overweight and out of shape, so it seems rather unlikely this will happen. That doesn't matter, because fate has great plans for Po. In a seemingly random act, a wise old turtle determines that Po is "The Dragon Warrior," aka, "The Super-Special-Kung-Fu-Fighter-That-Everybody-Wants-To-Be." Many are quite astonished by this revelation, particularly the intelligent kung-fu master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate).
Shifu has been training a group of skilled Kung Fu warriors for years: the powerful Tigress (Angelina Jolie, Wanted), the nimble Mantis (Seth Rogen, Knocked Up), the talented Crane (David Cross, Alvin and the Chipmunks), the multi-talented Monkey (Jackie Chan, Rush Hour) and the deadly Viper (Lucy Liu, Payback). Shifu was sure that one of his own students would be chosen as the Dragon Warrior, but it was not to be. Begrudgingly, Shifu and his students begin to train the hapless Po and attempt to transform him from an incompetent slob into a mighty warrior. Soon, Po becomes quite talented, and it's a good thing, too. He is going to be forced to battle the mighty tiger Tai-Lung (Ian McShane, more or less reprising his role from The Golden Compass) in an effort to save…well, lots of people, places, and things.
I've never been a huge fan of Dreamworks animation. Their films typically feel cheap and hollow, relying on lots of pop culture references, formulaic plots and celebrity voice casting to make a quick buck at the box office. They may seem fun at first, but most Dreamworks animated films start to feel dated after six months. Fortunately, this time they've created a film that may just hold up just a little bit longer than the others. Kung Fu Panda is an action-comedy about a fat panda who becomes a Kung-Fu warrior. Yes, I know it sounds like a rather thin premise. Frankly, it is a rather thin premise. However, the film actually works, thanks to some strong animation, solid voice work, well-crafted action scenes, and a short running time. Oh, also a complete lack of out-of-place pop culture reference.
The plot is quite familiar, but Kung Fu Panda is pretty entertaining and quite quick-witted. The animation and the action sequences are genuinely superb, ranking among the best technical achievements by Dreamworks. A solid score from John Powell and Hans Zimmer helps, too. In general, the film permits itself slightly more gravitas than the average animated flick, if not quite as much as the average Pixar film. It takes plenty of moments to pause and reflect on the characters and the story. These sequences work towards making the action-packed moments a bit more exciting, and parents may not find themselves suffering from a headache at the end of the film.
The humorous moments are largely geared at the kiddies, but there is some funny stuff here. The movie gets a lot of giggles out of Po's early training sequences, in which our cuddly hero finds increasingly inventive ways to fail at absolutely everything. The voice work is solid, with special mention going to Dustin Hoffman's turn as Shifu. I might have preferred someone other than Jack Black playing the part of Po, but let it be said that Black is generally less obnoxious during the film than he is in…most things.
Kung Fu Panda passes with flying colors in the technical department. This hi-def transfer looks simply fantastic; one of the best I've seen for an animated film and pretty much flawless in every way. Rich, deep, beautifully detailed, this is everything that a 1080p transfer should be. The audio is fantastic as well. The action sequences are tremendously exciting, and will undoubtedly make your room tremble. Everything here is perfectly balanced, creating a terrific listening experience. The fun score gets a very strong boost, too.
As you might expect, for a family film like this, the special features are divided between fluff for the kiddies and stuff of substance for those who actually care about how an animated film is made. The adults will probably be most interested in the filmmaker's commentary track, which has some interesting behind-the-scenes info. The Animator's Corner (A BD exclusive) also offers a picture-in-picture combination of storyboards and interviews which will please animation fans, while a trivia track (another BD exclusive) is rather uninformative.
Moving along to the featurettes, first up we "Meet the Cast" (13 minutes), which is the typical look at the actors doing voiceover roles. "Pushing the Boundaries" (7 minutes) is a self-congratulatory piece that talks about how the film achieves amazing things on a technical level. "Sound Design" (4 minutes) is a brief examination of creating the soundtrack, wrapping up the featurettes related to the making of the film. The rest is a grab-bag of kid-centered goodies. We get a 2-minute PSA about saving the wild pandas, a Cee-Lo music video, a 4-minute training video on how to "Learn the Panda Dance," 24 minutes of Kung Fu training in "Do You Kung Fu," eating tips in "How to Use Chopsticks" (3 minutes) and "Mr. Ping's Noodle House" (4 minutes), nature info in "Animals of Kung Fu Panda" (6 minutes), and a bit of culture with "Inside the Chinese Zodiac" (11 minutes). We're also given three games: "Dragon Warrior Training Academy," "Learn to Draw," and "Dumpling Shuffle." We wrap up with the usual Dreamworks Jukebox, some trailers, and BD Live.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This Blu-ray release is lacking one key supplemental feature that is included on the DVD: A 25-minute animated film called Secrets of the Furious Five. Kids will undoubtedly be very interested in this, and parents may be inclined to go for the DVD release in order to give it to them. Sure, this Blu-ray release has a couple of exclusive features, but nothing as substantial as the missing short film. Not cool, Dreamworks. Definitely not cool. For those who only care about getting the film in spectacular 1080p, this won't matter…but you can bet that a few kids are going to be pretty cranky when they find out what they're missing.
Kung Fu Panda is by no means an animated classic. Dreamworks Animation still has a very long way to go before they hit that level of success. Still, it's a solid family film that viewers of all ages should be able to enjoy on one level or another. Supplemental gripes aside, this Blu-ray is a pretty fantastic release and will undoubtedly be enjoyed by the whole family.
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