Directed By John Stevenson Mark Osborne
Starring Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McShane, Seth Rogan, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jackie Chan
I’m either the perfect person to review Kung Fu Panda or the absolutely wrong person to review it. I had very little interest in it based on the ads that I’ve seen. I like animated films but I’m not into the cutesy animal thing very much. There are exceptions to that rule such as Over the Hedge, a film I quite liked. So I hunkered down into a seat at the local IMAX for a screening of this film, not with low expectations, but with none at all.
Somewhere in China a Panda lives with his ahem, father, making noodles for a local village. He’s fanatical about kung fu and the local group of super hero like martial arts experts known as the Furious Five, that defend the village. The character, played by Jack Black, is a very familiar one in animated film, the underdog kid that believes he’s destined for greatness even if he appears to be the last animal that could possibly ever become a great warrior.
Through a series of accidents Po (Black) is named the new Dragon Warrior and he must learn the ways of Kung Fu before a villainous cat name Tai Lung comes home seeking revenge on his father for not allowing him to become the Dragon Warrior years ago. This is where problems with the plot crop up. Tai Lung is a bad guy, being kept in a mountain prison and guarded by 1,000 warriors. You never get the feeling that the punishment fits the crime with him.
As far as Po goes his evolution is so formulaic that you could feel the various beats coming from miles away. In fact his eventual discovery of his abilities reminded me of a similar scene in Tommy Boy (odd reference I know but it came to me while watching the film). Tommy is a horrible sales person working for his father’s company until one day he finds his inner salesmen and the way it’s revealed to him isn’t that unlike the way Po learns of his own potential. The reality here is there just isn’t much story outside of the basic formula. That’s incredibly sad for the other warriors, the Furious Five, as they are all played by big stars that probably got big paychecks but had very little to do in the film. Jackie Chan speaks so little that I never realized it was him in the role until the closing credits. Most of the opportunities for a dramatic twist are covered by excessively long action sequences. The action is fun for sure, but the scenes go extremely long considering the film’s really short running time.
You’d think by my comments so far that I hate this movie. The truth is I had a good time with it. The problem is that any CGI film that comes out these days gets compared to a Pixar production. This film doesn’t hold up in the comparison. It lacks the dramatic nuances and balance of depth for the grownups and fun for the kids that nearly all of the Pixar films have. What it does have is fun action scenes and some really great humor. You have to enjoy Jack Black’s style of spastic humor though. This character was either custom written for Black or he was allowed to adlib a good bit because some of the funniest stuff in the film seems to come right from the Jack Black school of comedy. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of Black I can confidently say you’ll still find yourself appropriately amused by Kung Fu Panda. A dream sequence comes to mind as one of my favorite bits of humor in the film.
As far as the look of the film it’s a mixed bag. Backgrounds are uniformly gorgeous featuring great detail and style. The main characters all also look great but the rest of the villagers appear fairly flat and generic. It feels like the budget ran out and the animators just had to stop their work on the village citizens. They aren’t ugly, not by a long shot, but they are flat compared to the main cast. Overall though, this is a great looking film with gorgeous Asian influenced (appropriately) style. The music in the film is also fantastic.
Surprisingly there are a few deaths in the film. Kids may not get that the characters die in the film because it’s glossed over but some kids are sure to realize it possibly causing some family discussion after the film.
Kung Fu Panda may not hold up the way that Toy Story has but it’s a fun time at the theater for all ages.