Saturday, November 13, 2010

Film Review: Kung Fu Panda

"Kung Fu Panda" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Just when I said no animated film is able to impress me visually, I see "Kung Fu Panda" (2008) the Dreamworks CGI animated film, and I'm completely blown away. When will I learn?

Merely looking at "Kung Fu Panda" gives me pleasure. Even if I shut the volume off and just sat and stared at it. What beautiful colors and attention to detail. "Kung Fu Panda" doesn't know it is an animated film. It thinks it is directed by Akira Kurosawa. It believes it is an actual martial arts movie.

How fitting given this is the story of a panda, Po (Jack Black, who was also a voice in another Dreamworks animated film, "Shark Tale" (2004), which is also worth watching) who dreams of becoming a great warrior. Unfortunately Po doesn't look much like a warrior. He is slow and over weight. He lacks the discipline to be a great fighter. Instead, according to his father, Mr. Ping (James Hong) his life is all planned out for him. Mr. Ping runs a noodle shop and it is his hope Po will take over the family business. But that is not what is in Po's heart.

Word strikes this small Chinese village that a menacing fighter, Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has escaped from prison. Now two legendary masters; Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) and Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) seeks to find the Dragon Warrior, the great savior who will protect the village from Tai Lung. Shifu believes one of his five students; Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross) or Viper (Lucy Liu) would make a worthy candidate. But Oogway says it is another. Through a terrific misunderstanding and sheer coincidence, Po finds he is the chosen one. And now it is up to Shifu to train him. But Shifu doubts his talents.

"Kung Fu Panda" then becomes a nice story about how even though we may not look like a hero we all have the ability inside us to do great things. We must believe in ourselves. Only then can we achieve great things. I admit this is not the most original message in the world, but, hey, it is an animated film about a panda that learns martial arts. What were you expecting? Trust me, this is more than enough to keep the kids entertained. And, I must admit keep the adults entertained too (I'm one of them).

"Kung Fu Panda" actually does something I kind of embarrassed to admit. It kept me in suspense. I was genuinely excited to see what would happen to Po and all the characters. I don't think the movie quite reaches the level of dramatic depths "Up" (2009) or "Grave of the Fireflies" (1988) does but "Kung Fu Panda" simply tells a good story. And that's nothing to sneeze at. The movie is funny, charming and on occasion enduring and tender. Maybe it could have used more sentiment but overall, the movie is quite effective.

The voice work here is very good. Jack Black is one of those actors I really don't care much for in live action films but here he won me over. His screen persona really comes through here and he seems like a natural choice to lend his voice to this character. He has some funny lines. And a couple of memorable catchphrases. I use to hear my niece say lines from the movie not knowing, until now, where she heard them.

I also like Dustin Hoffman. Though perhaps not ones first choice to play a Chinese martial arts master, Hoffman's voice does work. His character reminds me of a master Yoda type. They are about the same height too.

The film was directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. Osborne has directed a few episodes of the animated series "SpongeBob Squarepants" and worked with "Weird" Al Yankovic. Stevenson has worked as a storyboard artist on a few animated films including "Madagascar" (2005). The script was written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. They have worked on another Dreamworks film "Monsters vs Aliens" (2009) and the series "King of the Hill".

"Kung Fu Panda" was also a critical success. It was nominated for an Oscar in the best animated feature film category but lost to Pixar's "Wall.E" (2008). It also received a Golden Globe nomination. The film grossed more than 200 million dollars and as one can expect with those kind of numbers a sequel is going to be released next year.

Given the animated war going on between Dreamworks and Pixar, most people would give the edge to Pixar. They are critical darlings. Film critics see Pixar's films as the only legitimate animated films worth celebrating. The only ones they feel comfortable placing on their "top ten" list. But "Kung Fu Panda" is something Dreamworks should be proud of. It matches Pixar's artistic level. It is dazzling to look at. A real achievement. This is one of those special animated films the entire family can enjoy (as cliche as that sounds).