Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Posted by on Dec 30, 2011 in Let's Get Ready to Rumble | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Violence and obesity, obviously, plus a family film death that won’t scar kids or orphan the main character. What a concept!

Previous to Kung Fu Panda, the collective credits of co-directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson included little more than some animating for Madagascar and Shrek, and directing episodes of Spongebob Squarepants and a Weird Al video. Similarly, the four writers behind Panda’s story and screenplay had such highlights as episodes of King of the Hill and the feature film Bulletproof Monk. Given their credits, and the fact that they were working under the DreamWorks’ fledgling animation wing, one would suspect another family film using Shrek’s secret to success: pop culture references and pop songs. In other words, another piece of uninspired drivel.

But we should have given less attention to their history and paid more attention to the tagline on Panda’s posters, “Prepare for awesomeness,” because this unlikely team somehow pulled it off.

The title refers to the star: a vastly Panda2overweight panda named Po (voiced by Jack Black), who dreams of becoming a kung fu master. Despite Po’s dedication and heart, two things stand in his way: his figure and his father, the latter of which (a silly goose, literally; voiced by James Hong) expects the panda to take over a successful noodle shop. Po’s heroes are known as the Furious Five, animal amalgamations of the martial arts styles of Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Tiger (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Viper (Lucy Liu). It’s a clever concept, but unfortunately they rarely get any screen time – so much so that you won’t know that big-name celebrities provide their voices.

When a vicious snow leopard named Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes from prison, word spreads throughout the valley that an ancient prophecy is beginning to unfold. We’re told by a tortoise (Randall Duk Kim) that only the legendary Dragon Warrior will be able to save the valley and, as you’ve probably guessed, happenstance brings Po forward. To realize his full potential as Dragon Warrior, however, Po must endure the scrutiny of the five and their red panda mentor Sifu (Dustin Hoffman), plus a gamut of painful training exercises. “The only souvenirs we collect here are bloody knuckles and broken bones,” Sifu warns. But, much to their surprise, Po is all too honored to take a beating from these legends. He takes a beating and keeps on eating, so to speak.

There’s very little original content in Panda’s story. We’ve seen underdog (or in this case under-panda) stories before. We know about the training montage. Hell, we’ve even heard legends about overweight martial arts heroes (Beverly Hills Ninja). What sets Panda apart, however, is its entertaining degree of self-reflexive, aural, and visual flair. Panda recognizes its similarities in the kung fu genre, and makes damn sure that its content, spirit, and look represent the very best of the same.

There’s a great deal to admire, especially the constant motion of the camera, which introduces us to incredible settings that are rich in color and detail. I gladly purchased a copy, if only to take closer notice of all the wonderful details in the corners of the screen. The production designer and art director reportedly spent years researching Chinese painting, sculpture, architecture, and kung fu to give the film proper treatment. I’m glad to say it paid off in the most visually entrancing animated film DreamWorks has put together to date (How to Train Your Dragon came close).

The opening sequence, which turns out to be a dream, is mindblowing. And Black’s narration is absolutely hilarious – “He was so deadly that his enemies would go blind from overexposure to pure awesomeness.” Unlike the modern CGI animation of the bulk of the film, the hand-drawn opening (resembling Chinese shadow puppetry) has a certain pop, and I would have liked to see more of it. The movie has loads of other memorable scenes, such as the one-versus-1,000 prison escape, Po’s ill attempts to enter the Jade Palace, Po’s kitchen raid, the dumpling fight, and the fat joke-filled final throwdown.

Panda also provided a suitable role for the eccentric Black, which is extremely rare (only School of Rock and High Fidelity have previously). His dialogue sets the standard for the entire film’s tone – “The Sword of Destiny, said to be so sharp it can cut you just by looking … Owwww!” – and his singing couples well with Gnarls Barkley’s C-Lo, in a remake of Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting. I just hope Black’s phrase “Skidoosh” becomes the next “Hi ya!”

But, like all successful movies these days, it couldn’t possibly end there. There’s an animated series on Nickelodeon now, as well as a ridiculous five sequels on the way. As with most sequels, Kung Fu Panda 2 takes the popular moments of the original and makes them almost formulaic, not to mention adding “more” of everything. (And the only area it’s welcomed is in the rich visuals.) At the same time as extending the first installment, they draw back, giving an origin story to Po. His unexplained goose father was a funny part of the original, but you kinda had to figure a sequel or prequel would deal with it.

Despite being a film primarily about entertaining beatings, Panda has a few life lessons for youngsters that should boost character and confidence. With its overweight lead, Panda has surprising poignancy in addressing the childhood obesity issue that has swept the nation, while maintaining a love-yourself-for-who-you-are moral. It is Po’s rotundity, after all, that eventually saves the day. Just as Po is an unlikely hero, so were the filmmakers and studio unlikely to create such a masterful gem, which Kung Fu Panda no doubt is.

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