- Rated PG
- Buy the BD
All photos © Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by David Medsker
he idea of Jack Black fronting an animated movie about a lazy panda bear who is chosen to be a kung fu warrior sent chills up the spine of, well, pretty much everyone. The Tenacious D faithful worried that his mojo would be neutered for the sake of the kiddie market, while Black’s detractors – ahem, Kevin Carr of Film School Rejects – were terrified that he’d find an excuse to start doing that damn scatting thing. Amazingly, “Kung Fu Panda” does neither of those things. It’s still a bit patchy in terms of its pace, and it’s awfully violent for a PG movie, but it also features the best fight sequences the animated world, or any other world, has ever seen.
Black is Po, an out of shape panda who works for his father’s noodle shop (his father, of course, is not a panda but a stork), but daydreams about being the sixth member of a group of elite fighters called the Furious Five, who have trained under Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). When Shifu’s master, Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), has a vision of the nefarious Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escaping from prison and reigning terror on those in the Golden Valley, he chooses Po to be the Dragon Warrior that will ultimately stop him. This comes as shocking news to both Shifu and the Furious Five, particularly Tigress (Angelina Jolie), who believes she is the rightful Dragon Warrior. Po, naturally, couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag, but Shifu uses Po’s love of food as a peculiar motivator.
There are not many jokes in “Kung Fu Panda,” and that is both good and bad. On the plus side, the movie takes itself seriously and doesn’t try to distract its audience with pop culture references that wouldn’t exist in the story’s universe (like the “Shrek” movies). On the other hand, the dialogue could have used a little more punch than “Hey, let’s make fun of the fat slacker panda” and the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer message about believing in yourself. When there isn’t a training exercise or a fight sequence, the movie feels like it’s standing still.
Those training exercises and fight sequences, however, more than make up for the movie’s stilted shifts in tempo. They are positively thrilling, using “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”-type wire work choreography to delirious and at times comical effect. It doesn’t spare the whip, either; Tai Lung’s first scene is visceral stuff, containing some metal-on-bone shots that wouldn’t have been out of place in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator.” Special points also go to the opening sequence, which will have Tenacious D fans howling in their seats at its awesome awesomeness. That is not a typo, in case you were wondering.
DreamWorks Animation has taken some significant leaps forward in terms of quality in the last couple years. “Over the Hedge” was their coming-out party, and “Kung Fu Panda,” while not quite as consistent as “Hedge,” is another solid step in the right direction. Pixar, of course, still owns them, but the gap between them is definitely shrinking.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
DreamWorks has been known to overstuff their DVD and Blu-ray releases with kiddy-themed bonus material in the past, and “Kung Fu Panda” is no exception. In fact, while it may look like the single-disc effort is loaded with special features, there are really only a few worth checking out. The highlight of the standard DVD release is undoubtedly the filmmaker commentary with directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, but the Blu-ray makes the whole behind-the-scenes experience even better with a pop-up trivia track and a picture-in-picture video track (“The Animators’ Corner”) filled with storyboards and interviews with the cast and crew. Other great extras include a “Meet the Cast” featurette, an inside look at the design and creation of the film’s animation (“Pushing the Boundaries”), and a brief production featurette on sound design, while the disc is rounded out with some games and Chinese-themed extras like how to use chopsticks and make noodles. Additionally, BD-Live users get access to features like "Po Around the World," where you can watch the film in different languages, and "A Day in the Life: A Shaolin Monk in Training."