For some reason, Hollywood decided this year that it loved Kung fu flicks, particularly your old school, master/apprentice-style Kung Fu flick. Oh sure, Hollywood has borrowed from movies like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Magnificent Butcher before, in examples like The Empire Strikes Back, The Karate Kid or even a bit in films like this year’s Wanted, but 2008’s crop yielded two films that mimicked this genre like never before: the Jet Li/Jackie Chan team-up The Forbidden Kingdom and Dreamworks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda. While both surprised with how fine they turned out, it was Kung Fu Panda that really wowed audiences with its visual style and genuine storytelling, which ended up very much embracing the Martial Arts genre instead of going the obvious route of trying to mocking it.
Like many of the Martial Arts films that came before it, Kung Fu Panda is very simple in its storytelling. The premise follows your basic “lovable loser turned savior” archetype, with Jack Black’s Po, a happy, but frustrated Panda working in his father’s noodle bar, desperately dreaming of becoming The Dragon Warrior, a legendary hero that will save his village from evil and know the ways of Kung Fu. In true Martial Arts Cinema fashion, Po’s dreams begin to come true when a horrible mishap has him stumbling into the ceremony where the Warrior is being chosen, accidentally landing the clumsy panda the coveted designation.
While yes, the plot mechanics of Kung Fu Panda are about as formulaic as you get, it’s the way the film makers tell the story along with the movie’s wonderful visuals and it’s the well developed characters that really draw you to this film. First of all, those that are worried that this will be another Shrek or Madagascar-like production with tons of pop culture references and easy jokes every minute or two will be pleasantly surprised; this movie is an earnest attempt at creating a genuine Martial Arts homage, featuring lovable characters that hardly ever go outside the film’s main aesthetic to get a laugh. In fact, while not necessarily quite up to Pixar’s standards, I would say overall the movie has much more in common with films such as A Bug’s Life and The Incredibles than it does with Over the Hedge or Bee Movie humor-wise.
A lot of credit has to go to Black himself, who makes Po a wonderfully endearing character, and one that I wouldn’t mind seeing onscreen again, as opposed to his more grating, over the top performances, such as the one earlier this year in Be Kind, Rewind. For Po, the actor is really able to tap into his charming man-boy persona, which is appropriate for the type of role this is and helps make his journey to Dragon Warrior an entertaining one. Of course, backing Black up is a stellar cast of voice actors that help bring these characters to life.
These would include Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu, the leader of the Furious Five, Masters Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross), the group that has been training apprentices for a hundred years in order to be able to crown the Dragon Warrior. I love that the cast is an eclectic mix of Hall of Fame actors, Martial Arts Cinema veterans, and popular comedians, all of which are spot on with these roles. The characters themselves are also wonderful references to different forms of Kung Fu, many of which having been represented in classic fight flicks before this, and do those archetypes proud.
Of course, with a group like this you need a terrific villain, and Kung Fu Panda delivers in this department with Ian McShane’s Tai Lung. The Deadwood vet lets his menace absolutely rip here, helping to create voice to go with the evil visuals cooked up for this character. Tai Lung, whose lust for power is insatiable, is determined to become the Dragon Warrior himself, and will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, including taking down nearly a thousand warriors in one heart stopping sequence to do so.
A lot of the time animated films can be hampered with their format, with action not really living up to a flesh and blood live action film, but this one manages to do to one better; Kung Fu Panda embraces animation in order to embellish its action, which is completely in keeping with the genre its emulating. The staging by the movie’s directors is quite good, using the film’s terrific background visuals to help accentuate its sequences, such as scenes where Tai Lung jumps hundreds of feet to escape death or watching the Furious Five battle the main villain on a rope bridge while defying gravity. All of this adds to the movie’s visual splendor, which gives us a stylized look at Ancient China, giving us glimpses of both epic wonders and tiny examples of magnificence.
Indeed, this is without a doubt the best looking movie Dreamworks Animation has ever produced, closing the gap ever so slightly with their rivals over at the House of Woody and Buzz. Surprisingly, the tone is actually set early with a gigantic 2-D sequence that is drawn to resemble Chinese Shadow Puppetry and from there we are given some absolutely breathtaking visuals throughout the picture, from Tai Lung’s aforementioned battles to a sequence featuring cherry blossoms that is hypnotic in its beauty. The movie just looks like the studio wanted to finally start competing with Pixar on a visual level, and for the most part the picture is a rousing success.
If this is the type of work that Dreamworks Animation is going to try and put forth from now on, I can see a bright future for the studio, not only with little kids, but with critics and adults as well. Kung Fu Panda is the best film the studio has ever produced, and shows how funny and touching a film like this can be without the broad and obvious humor that has accompanied their movies in the past. Kung Fu Panda is a wonderful mix of Asian motifs, good natured laughs, terrific characters, and incredible visuals. While not quite matching an achievement like WALL-E, the movie has plenty of merits all its own, and the result is a wonderfully entertaining crowd-pleaser.
As good as this film looked in the theater, it was nothing compared to the 1080p image on this Blu-ray. This is a seriously gorgeous film with a print on this disc that shows off all the hard work put forth by the movie’s animators. The cherry blossoms in the movie look almost real on this print, as the image detail is absolutely staggering to behold at times, and the film’s sound design gets a thunderous blast on the film’s audio track. For this reason alone, I can whole heartedly recommend this disc.
Note: The Blu-ray disc features an interesting mix of extras, ranging from several that are available on the DVD Edition of the movie, some that are available on the Secrets of the Furious Five DVD, and then a few that are exclusive only to this Blu-ray disc. Unfortunately, the 25-minute Secrets of the Furious Five short, which is surprisingly enjoyable, is no where to be seen.
Trivia Track (Blu-ray exclusive) – This is a neat little track that gives you interesting little tidbits, such as some inspirations for certain scenes, and some of the habits of Jack Black on set.
Animator’s Corner (Blu-ray exclusive) – A picture-in-picture feature that lets you look at storyboards and animatics while checking out the final results of the movie, all while the film makers provide a really nice commentary track.
BD Live (Blu-ray exclusive) – You get links to download some other Featurettes and trailers, my favorite being A Day in the Life: A Shaolin Monk in Training, which gives you some cool “fly on the wall” type footage of some monks doing their thing.
Audio Commentary with Directors Mark Osborne and John Stevensen – This is a pretty nice track from this duo, who obviously have an affection for their work. They also seem to really love Martial Arts films and Anime, which they go into depth about at times, rounding out a really nice commentary.
Meet the Cast – Your pretty standard DVD “Making of” Featurette, and you can tell this is kind of aimed at kids. My favorite part of this is when David Cross is speaking and he seems completely disingenuous about loving his character in the movie and how much fun he had.
Pushing the Boundaries – The Featurette here discusses the new techniques they had to use in order be able to animate Martial Arts on screen, as the previous motion capture rigs had to be scrapped.
Conservation International: Help Save Wild Pandas– This is a message from Black about saving wild pandas.
Mini-games – You get several mini-games here including Dragon Warrior: Training Academy, Dumpling Shuffle, and Learn to Draw.
Sound Design – This is about 4 minutes of sounds designers doing their thing and showing us how they came up with different sound effects.
Kung Fu Fighting – A music video by Cee-Lo of Gnarls Barkley.
Learn the Panda Dance – An instructional video for kids on how to do to this Kung Fu style dance.
Do You Kung Fu? – One of the better extras on the disc, this Featurette breaks down the different Kung Fu styles and also gives you several demonstrations on the different styles.
Mr Ping’s Noodle House – My favorite feature on the disc, this has Alton Brown from Iron Chef America talking about how noodles are made and then the executive chef at Mr. Chow in California actually demonstrates how it is done. Really incredible stuff to watch.
How to Use Chopsticks – This is pretty self explanatory.
Inside the Chinese Zodiac – Gives you an insight into the different animals of the Chinese Zodiac and then also helps you to determine which animal you fall under.
Animals of Kung Fu Panda – This Featurette gives you the history of the different fighting styles and their origins.
What Fighting Style Are You? – This interactive feature has a series of multiple choice questions which allows you to determine with fighting style would best suit you. This is kind of neat and I bet kids will love it.
Dreamworks Animation Video Jukebox – Videos from other Dreamworks movies like Bee Movie, Madagascar, Shark’s Tale and the Shrek films.
Kung Fu Panda is an incredibly enjoyable Animated film which manages to pay homage to Martial Arts films instead of making fun of them. The best thing I can say about the film is that not only will kids like the movie, but parents will also find plenty to like as well. The Blu-ray disc is also packed with extras that will keep the kiddies busy for hours and the print on this BD is eye-poppingly good. This is fantastic stuff overall.
DreamWorks presents Kung Fu Panda. Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. Starring Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, and Ian McShane. Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. Running time: 95 minutes. Rated PG. Released on Blu-ray: November 8, 2008. Available at Amazon.
Tags: angelina jolie, animated, dreamworks, dustin hoffman, Jack Black, Kung Fu Panda