June 16, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

Jack Black heads the voice cast as Po the Panda, the laziest of all the animals in the Valley of Peace. With powerful enemies at the gates, all hope has been pinned on an ancient prophesy that a hero will rise to save the day. But among all the martial arts masters who come forward, none has shown the mark of The Chosen One ... until now. When Po unwittingly shows up in the midst of the competition, the masters are shocked to see that this unmotivated panda bears the mark. Now it is up to them to turn this gentle giant into a kung fu fighter before it's too late.

Co-starring, Dustin Hoffman voicing the role of Shifu, the by-the-book and tough-as-nails Kung Fu master, who has been given the unenviable task of turning the undisciplined Po into a kung fu fighter. Ian McShane (Deadwood) is the voice of the villainous Tai Lung, a ferociously powerful snow leopard, who breaks out of prison, intent on using his kung fu skills to destroy the Valley of Peace.

Perhaps the best thing about Kung Fu Panda is that it's an action comedy that doesn't skimp on the action. Dreamworks Animation's latest effort is the closest thing I've seen to the Pixar caliber of artistry and character acting, and it's certainly a well-made kid's film that earns high points for how directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne clearly crafted and contemplated its look and feel with ambition and style. Anyone can make a computer-animated cartoon with fuzzy animals doing kung fu; you have to be at least a little inspired to make a computer-animated cartoon featuring fuzzy animals doing kung fu in widescreen Cinemascope. Having strong character development, surprising story acrs, beautiful landscapes, brilliant color designs, smooth and believable animation direction, a great musical score, and well-thought-out character and location designs.

Kung Fu Panda opens with a rousing, stylish action sequence, as narrator (Jack Black, in full-on Tenacious D exposition mode) explains how "Legend tells of a legendary kung fu warrior whose kung fu skills were legendary. ..." But then, the heroic panda we've seen unleashing paws of power on the big screen ... wakes up; it was just a dream. Then Po the panda (Black), whose dreams of kung fu glory are the counterpoint to his unsatisfying life, gets ready for his day of helping his father Mr. Ping (James Wong) sell noodles to the people of the Valley of Peace.

This opening sequence blew my head off! For any animation artist out there, you have to see this film even if it's just for that intro, I'm much more of a fan of classically animated films than 3D/CG, but this 2D-animated opener had my jaw drop and my unblinking eyes wide open. It's like the Genndy Tartakovsky Samurai Jack style on steroids! It's a great touch to the film as a whole, and it gives you a hint of how much this is a fantastic film for animators, artists, geeking-out kung-fu fans and nerds out there to appreciate.

Meanwhile, in the temple on the hill, the handful of trained warriors known as the "Furious Five" who've been trained under Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) waits anxiously. One of them will be named by temple master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) as the prophesied Dragon Warrior who will save the valley from the threat of Shifu's ex-student Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Tai Lung, denied the secret of the Dragon Scroll that would have made him the Dragon Warrior years ago, went on a rampage of rage after his rejection; he's in captivity, but his return has been prophesied as well. As the crowd gathers to see who Oogway will name as the Dragon Warrior, Po abandons his post at the noodle cart, drags himself up to the temple and sneaks in. Of course, when the Dragon Master is named, it's not Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) or Mantis (Seth Rogen) who is chosen from the ranks of the Furious Five, but instead portly, poky Po.

No one can believe Po's the Dragon Warrior -- not even Po himself; as Mr. Ping points out, "We're noodle people, Po; broth runs in our veins. ..." But, as you'd expect, Po has hidden strengths and a good heart, and he comes to believe in himself through the support of his friends and all of that, that in this case meaning fairly standard-issue kid-movie underdog story stuff. Kung Fu Panda isn't trying to re-invent any wheels here, though; instead, it tries, and succeeds, to put a nice spin on familiar kid-flick moments. Po is the sort of character -- slack, silly, gentle but goofy -- that Black can do in his sleep, so it's a nice surprise that never happens here; Black keeps Po warm and winning even in the most thinly-written moments. Hoffman's Shifu, a tiny-but-towering red panda martial arts master mammal, gets some nice line readings as well, and McShane bites into his dialogue until you can practically hear the juice running down his chin.

As for the Five, they're not given much to say; It's a shame they didn't have more lines, but the movie was all about Po and Shifu. David Cross (Crane) and Michael Dorn (Rhino, Prison Guard) have very distinct voices that I recognized soon after those character first began their dialogue. As for the rest, I had no clue who the voice actors were till the end credits. To be honest, I wouldn't have known Dustin Hoffman was Shifu if it wasn't for someone telling me prior to seeing the movie. Ian McShane was instantly recognizable as it made me think of his Swearengen character from Deadwood right away.

The fight sequences in Kung Fu Panda are actually VERY impressive -- taking advantage of the fantastic freedom of animation (with moments of obviously Anime-influenced epic action) while also being stylized and character-driven; supervising animator and storyboard artist Rudolphe Gunoden is credited as the kung fu choreographer, and his work's inspired, from little touches like anatomically informed fighting styles for all the animals in the film to big moments like a sequence where the Furious Five take on Tai Lung on a rickety, precarious rope bridge or when Shifu finally hits on the secret of how to best bring out Po's kung fu skills. The musical score made me think back to David Carradine's Kung Fu series, reminiscent of classic Shaolin temple scenes with the oriental flute playing during dramatic/spiritual moments in the film.

Animators had fun with sometimes subtle facial expressions, wild takes and awesome martial arts action, including great timing, strong poses, beautiful lighting, and convincing performances. Kung Fu Panda surprisingly ranks quite high on the scale for general visual style and strong character animation for a 3D/CG film, and it'll still provide your kids with a fairly respectable mix of action, amazement and amusement. With a production budget of $130,000,000. And a total worldwide gross of $138,000,000 on its opening weekend, it's fair to say Dreamworks has another animated hit on their hands and will prove to be a moderate to high commercial success over the next few weeks.

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