by David Cornelius
The opening scene is enough to let you know if you’re going to love “Kung Fu Panda” or not. In startling traditional hand-drawn animation, we see the action fantasies of Po, a huggably huge Panda who dreams of being the greatest of all kung fu warriors. Po’s voice is provided by Jack Black, who provides goofball hyperbole at its Jack Blackiest: in his dream adventure, we learn the legend of a warrior whose mere awesomeness causes enemies to go blind. Its plus-size silliness and an honest-to-goodness love for old school kung fu set the stage perfectly for everything that follows.What follows is a CG animation comic-adventure that deals entirely with the well-worn cartoon formula of believing in yourself. But oh, what a wonderful variation on a theme. Black’s Po is a slacker for the ages, a wise-cracking, self-effacing kung fu fanatic who worships local martial arts heroes The Furious Five, a gang of protectors each literally resembling five ancient forms of kung fu fighting: tiger, mantis, snake, crane, and monkey. Which is a pretty darn genius idea, especially when you consider the filmmakers hired Jackie Chan to play the monkey. Jackie Chan! As the kung fu monkey! That’s just about perfect.
Po isn’t happy working at his father’s noodle shop (his father, by the way, is a goose), but can’t bring himself to admit his secret dreams of martial arts glory. It’s a tired plot point in cartoons like this, but watch how screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (working from a story by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris) handle it. There’s a sweetness to the father-son stuff, a sweetness that pays off in the movie’s final chapter as the script unexpectedly but very smartly manages to weave this thread into the greater story that builds later, as Po becomes the surprise choice for the Dragon Warrior, the village’s mightiest protector.
Such a choice comes when Po, who only wanted to sneak a peek at the Five’s grand tournament, crashes onto the stage and is selected by the wise master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) to be the Dragon Warrior. The Five are unhappy with the choice - especially Tigress (Angelina Jolie), who expected to earn the title herself, and Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), the Five’s teacher, who is convinced that training a big fat panda is an impossible task. Meanwhile, the villainous Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has escaped from prison and is heading to the village to steal the Dragon Scroll and defeat the Dragon Warrior.
A lesser cartoon would settle for a familiar route: the Five grimaces as Po fails, Po learns to trust in himself, big showdown, the end. And for the most part, “Kung Fu Panda” follows this trail. But the glory’s in the details - the Five, initially seen as spiteful of Po’s sudden fame, turn out to be more considerate than expected, while Shifu’s reluctance to train Po gets built up into his own character arc, as the teacher learns to let go of his past failures and appreciate the wisdom of Oogway.
Character work is essential to the movie’s success. Each player is surprisingly well fleshed out, and even the supporting roles, with less to do, are given their own unique tics that reveal an animation crew concerned with crafting genuine characters, not just talking critters. (The voice cast also includes David Cross, Lucy Liu, and Seth Rogen, all of whom add a deep likeability to the proceedings.) There’s something the animators do with these animals’ eyes that bring them to life - a slight pause, a raised eyebrow, a shifty glance.
The animators then deliver visual excitement reminiscent of classic Looney Tunes shorts. The visual gags are top notch, plenty of physical humor earning huge laughs, even when the punchline is obvious and expected. (Po’s unfortunate foray into a trap-filled training room is a work of sheer brilliance, and there’s something about Po’s Cookie Monster-esque manic eating that tickles me every time.)
And then comes the kung fu. Oh man, the kung fu! Again, the lesser route would be to play it all for laughs, with maybe some generic suspense added here and there to keep the plot moving. But here are directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson offering up genuine action thrills, allowing the film to play out as one heck of a tribute to the martial arts genre. Understanding how animation can expand the action, breaking the laws of the real world, allowing us to see things we’d never see even in the most impressive of live-action wire-fu flicks, the filmmakers have their mighty warriors bounding though the air with ease, flipping and kicking and wowing at every turn. Most impressive is a lengthy set piece involving a rope bridge, a deep chasm, and stunts Indiana Jones could never attempt. It’s a visual marvel.
(Even the music plays it straight. Aside from a playful closing credits rendition of “Kung Fu Fighting,” Hans Zimmer and John Powell’s symphonic score avoids the bouncy-cutesy sounds of most modern cartoons and instead tackles an epic Eastern flavor straight out of “Crouching Tiger” and “Hero.”)This mix of action and comedy, character and thrills, the familiar and the fresh makes “Kung Fu Panda” a far smarter movie than anyone could have expected. This is dazzling, clever entertainment. The adventures of Po and Friends earn every smile, every gasp, every eye-popping thrill, and they do it all with a hearty, winking Skidoosh.
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originally posted: 06/16/08 11:26:09