Kung Fu Panda

USA. Animation/Action/Comedy/Family. 92 minutes. Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. Starring the voice talents of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Randall Duk Kim, James Hong, Dan Fogler, Michael Clarke Duncan, Wayne Knight, Kyle Grass, JR Reed, Laura Kightlinger, Tanya Haden, Stephen Kearin. Cinematography by Yong Duk Jhun. Edited by Ckare De Chenu. Production Design by Raymond Zibach. Art Direction by Tang Kheng Heng. Music by John Powell, Hans Zimmer. Animator Supervisor Alessandro Carloni. Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. Produced by Melissa Cobb.

8 November 2008

When Shrek saw the light of day in 2001, I was amazed by the sheer delight in which it broke new grounds in the field of animated feature film, it rolled over the outdated Disney studio leaving them with shabby, low budget sequels to their classic titles as last resort. DreamWorks took the reign of animated comedy, making it fun for the family as well as for anyone else, forcing the Academy of Arts and Science to conjure up an Animated Feature Oscar just so that Shrek could recieve it. The newest release from DreamWorks, Kung Fu Panda, is by no means equally revolutionary. But it does show off what a vivid genre this can be.

The basic idea of the story is familiar. A nobody gets a chance to greatness, a nobody has to become a somebody, a nobody is the only hope, a nobody has to stand against the biggest threat possible, the odds are impossible, a weak nobody must find inner streangth, he aswell as those around him must learn how to believe. Fair enough. But there are no overly sentimental moments, no epic proportions, no pretentious speeches and nowhere does anybody point any fingers against an obvious moral. Basically, this is no fortune cookie.
It’s ancient China, sort of. A lazy fat panda named Po, voiced by Jack Black, spends his days in the family’s noodle shop but is dreaming away, in his mind as big a kung fu hero as the beloved and legendary ”Furious Five” (a celebrated kung fu quintet, consisting of (the) Tigress, Crane, Mantis, Viper and Monkey), trained by the grumpy little guru Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), in return trained by the whimsy old turtle Oogway (Randall Duk Kim). As it is according to an ancient prophecy the old turtle must, roundabout every century, name a ”Shadow Warrior”, the Greatest of Heroes to defend the village (now is a good time too, since the super evil leopard Tail Lung escapes from his maximum prison and his heading towards the village for revenge, and to claim the ancient title for himself). And, as it turns out, Oogway choses Po, who stumbles into the scene by accident. Now time is short, to train his reluctant, fat panda arse into that of a proper kung fu hero, and initially of course, he has nobody on his side.

Yep, that about does it. But Kung Fu Panda reminds me of what I love about good movies. The execution of this film is so colorful and tenderly thought-up. To make it simple – I was constantly surprised, amused, greatly entertained and even moved while watching this movie. For one thing, it takes itself seriously – but with a great deal of self-irony. By comparison, I got the feeling while watching movies like Shark Tale or Shrek The Third that they weren’t made with any particular interest. The jokes were lame standard pop cultural references, and the comedy as well as the drama was routine. Even the self-irony was made by routine.
But Kung Fu Panda releases the fun again, and with a multitude. Not only are the jokes really funny (”I’m not a big fat panda. I’m THE big fat panda”) and the slapstick genuinely fresh – but this movie has the heart of an action comedy. There are action scenes in this movie, that uses it’s cinemascope to an extent, consistenly well-designed, really exhilirating and a lot of fun to watch. It’s like the people behind the movie figured that, well, if we are to make a movie about a kung-fu panda, we better make it a kung-fu movie. And that line of reasoning is just excellent, making Kung Fu Panda the first movie I’ve ever seen where I just completely forget that I’m watching a ”kid’s movie”, and just… well, enter the dragon.

That’s enough to make this a great movie, but there’s more. The story and the characters are really quite unforgettable. The voice actors have an awareness that is really rare in these types of movies, specially when there’s an A-list cast. Black is better than I’ve seen him anywhere else, bringing real color to his tubby panda, and Hoffman is ingenious making every effort with his talent to make his little guru an even better character, surely, than what was first designed. Jolie’s fiesty but cool-tempered Tigress is a really credible Han Solo-ish antihero-sidekick, even Jackie Chan makes the Monkey totally wonderful with minimal effort. James Hong’s worried noodle dad is truly a hilarious character, and even the smallest of characters, like the comic-relief bird Zeng (Dan Fogler) is well made and a great asset to the film. In fact, speaking of Zeng, I might just say he has the funniest ”line” in the entire movie – a perfectly timed squawk that I imagine I could rewind fifty times and not stop laughing at. The turtle sensei Oogway is another magically good character. He seems somewhat senile, coming off as a comic-relief, yet he is by far the wisest and most powerful guy around (one little flashback-sequence demonstrates it, economical and efficient storytelling textbook example 1a) and he is in the end the big daddy of the film’s entire soul and message. Despite an appearance that is wonderfully laughable. It’s quirky, and quite ingenious.
Because of these great characters and these perfect voice talents, we cram in a little backstory, subtly hinted at throughout the movie but explained in one flashback – it’s really the standard thing about how the bad guy really was once good, and how the master and pupil are bittersweet enemies of love and hate – that totally works, and even makes this little gem worth shedding a tear or two for.
If you are nine years old, I envy you. Kung Fu Panda will have a classic place in the family movie shelf. It’s one bamboo blade sharper than Shrek.