Starring Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Anglina Jolie, Michael Cross, Jackie Chan and a bunch of computer animating geeks
Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Another summer, another blockbuster computer animated movie, and a Dreamworks picture to boot. You see, in the computer animated movie biz, there's Pixar, and there's everyone else. Pixar delivers the modern classic Finding Nemo (a personal favorite) and Dreamworks delivers...Shark Tale. About fish. And a car wash. Hmmm... Pixar delivers A Bugs Life a great little movie (and even one of their weaker entries) and Dreamworks hits us with, Antz. With Woody Allen. And the movie title pluralized with a "z". Right... If you take away Dreamworks' 900 lb. gorilla (or ogre) Shrek, and the chasm between the two studios is even greater.
Why the rift in quality? In short, I haven't the slightest. Pixar doesn't know how to make bad movies. Whereas Dreamworks, minus the Shrek films, are good. They're like Big Macs. Without the money to go to a nicer place, they'll do just fine. You eat them, you feel pleasant enough, and then you're burping thousand island secret sauce for the rest of the afternoon. One theory I have is that I think the Shrekification of movies has something to do with it. The scientific formula for Shrek is simple:
Big colorful characters for kids + mature in-jokes that kids don't get divided by # of fart jokes = Box Office Bonanza.
We like it, it works. BUT, we don't want it every time. We can only take so many zany and colorful talking animals guys. Give us something different, something a little more nuanced than neurotic giraffes a la Madagascar. Now that I've spent half my article trashing Dreamworks animation, let me tell you why Kung Fu Panda is their best movie since the original Shrek. Are you ready for this?
It's not very much like Shrek.
Okay, okay, it still admittedly a little like Shrek. You've got your talking animals, and your sprinkling of potty humor (which remains hilarious), but in essence Kung Fu Panda is a modern reinterpretation of the classic Kung Fu movie in animated form. It manages to strike a nice balance of wildly imaginative cartoon characters with a traditional quest to become the ultimate warrior, in this movies case, the Dragon Warrior. I'll be honest, this movie had me at the opening sequence, in which Po, the titular Panda, dreams of the Furious Five, this film's quintet of nearly indestructable warriors. He awakens from his dream world to a drab reality, where he is unable to kip up from his back to standing, and his association with the Furious Five is limited to the action figures that line his window sill, something that thirtysomething Star Wars geeks like myself will richly appreciate.
Po has a love of food, and Kung Fu, but is stuck living out his father's dream as a noodle vendor. We never learn exactly why Po's dad is a bird, but it doesn't matter. It's a nifty bit of foreshadowing that suggests to us that, like his family lineage, Po is not quite where he belongs. When he learns that the local master will be choosing the new Dragon Warrior, Po naturally finds a way to get to the event, and through a bizarre and serendipitous situation, he becomes the unlikely Warrior to defend the people from the menacing Tai Lung.
There is not much here that hasn't been covered before, themes of believing in yourself and using the gifts that we have and being who we are have been the topic of countless other films (Karate Kid?) but the quality is in the telling. Jack Black is used appropriately, but not obnoxiously, as the unlikely Dragon Warrior, and while the personalities of the Furious Five are never fleshed out beyond Tigress, voiced by Angelina Jolie, their differences lie in their various fighting styles (all of them, cleverly, represented by the actual animal. The tiger style master is a tiger, monkey style is a monkey, mantis style...yeah, you get it).
And their fighting styles are what elevate this film above previous efforts. The hook of thinly veiled adult humor to reel in Moms and Dads has been eschewed in favor of outstanding action. There were moments of intensity that rivaled, and in some cases trumped, The Incredibles, which for me is the pinnacle of animated action. And while Moms and Dads will no doubt flock to this film as their kids beg for it, this is a film that I could easily see curious teens and childless grown-ups enjoying without hesitation. I found the art direction to be just as fantastic as the action. While the movie's humor may make you forget, there are beautiful moments in the film, that whisk the viewer away to a place where warriors meditated on cloudy mountain tops to attain the universal secret to enlightenment, peace, and awesome !@# kicking abilities.
I entered Kung Fu Panda with moderate expectations and was well pleased with the mix of humor, action, and surprising beauty. Don't let this somewhat high minded review make you think you're walking into an animated Citizen Cane, but what the movie does, it does well. A bit surprising to myself, I give Kung Fu Panda four out of four pot stickers, and give it a Viper style infused 20 ft. high flipping dragon punch recommendation. Kids will enjoy. Action and martial arts afficionados will be delighted. Everyone wins. Believe me when I say that it does get a bit intense in the cartoon violence department, but just about every kid except for the most sensitive should be just fine.