Dreamworks animation has been in direct competition with Pixar (and Disney) since they released “Shrek” the same year as “Monsters Inc.”. In that case, “Shrek” won an Oscar and seemed to be the new face of computer animation. Now nearly a decade later, “Shrek” is starting to show it’s age, and “Monsters Inc.” is considered a classic. So Dreamworks shifted their game a bit with “Kung Fu Panda”, but would it be enough to get audiences and critics to stop saying “It’s good, but not as good as anything by Pixar.”
Po (Jack Black) is a panda with a dream. He wants to be kung-fu master, but he’s actually stuck being the son of a noodle shop owner. However, things look up when a tournament is conducted to find the legendary Dragon Warrior. After a series of mishaps, Po is declared the Dragon Warrior and the only one who can stop the rampage of the deadly Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is convinced that his pupils, the Furious Five, will be the ones to stop Tai Lung, but he finally consents to train Po. Will Po be prepared for the epic battle, or will he find that being a fan boy of Kung Fu isn’t enough to be called the “Kung Fu Panda”?
- The fight scenes are well animated.
- The music is perfect for the film.
- The script avoids reliance on pop-culture references and bodily function gags
- The animation style is on the simplistic side, not a lot of detail
- The violence is Looney Tunes style, making martial arts look a lot less martial
- The script is predictable.
This film surprised me. Dreamworks has given us a very entertaining film that hits all the marks you expect it to. The script contains no surprises, but at the same time it’s fun and has a lot of energy. A solid voice cast and a perfect musical score all contribute to the experience. “Kung Fu Panda” is a good evenings entertainment and also is highly rewatchabe.
Scores (out of 5)
Voice Acting: 4
Entertainment: 4Overall: 4
It might sound like I’m hard on Dreamworks and their animation department, and I guess I am. But “Shrek” showed a lot of promise. It was a great beginning and I hoped they would expand from there, but instead they seemed more than willing to continue following the formula they established, wearing it very thin for us serious animation fans out there. I guess now is a good place to clear this up, I’m a serious animation fan. I think the medium of animation offers truly creative directors a chance to explore all kinds of story telling opportunities. It’s a shame it gets relegated to being “just for kids”. The teams at Pixar and Studio Ghibli understand that telling good stories comes first – and then using the story as a springboard for the animation is the next step. Dreamworks seems to focus more on creating sight gags, pop culture references and a few “big” moments. That makes for a nice piece of throw away entertainment, but why not come up with a good story while you’re at it.
That’s what makes “Kung Fu Panda” work better than it’s predecessors. It feels like some time was taken with the script. The basics are nothing new. You’ve got the naïve youth who must be trained to take on the deadly master. You’ve got the teacher who doubts his student’s skills, but eventually comes to care for him and believe in him. And then you’ve got the climax where the student realizes that his strengths and faults can help him beat the evil master. He believes in himself and he wins. If you’ve seen the “Karate Kid” then you know the story.
However it’s the little touches to the characters that make things interesting. Po is actually a fan boy of Kung Fu. He knows all kinds of things about it, but doesn’t have the physical skills to actually do any type of martial arts. The way he treats Master Shifu and the Furious Five is exactly how a fan would act when he meets his idols. He’s in awe of them, he wants to learn from them, but at the same time he behaves like it’s a treat for him – not a matter of life and death. Once that hit’s home, Po runs away. He doesn’t believe in himself and his teacher doesn’t either.
Shifu is also given a bit more depth. He’s arrogant, feeling that his Furious Five are the real heroes; he won’t even give Po a second thought. It is this arrogance that created the threat that they are facing. Shifu brought up and trained Tai Lung – and ignored the fact that Tai Lung was turning into an even more arrogant and dangerous warrior. Shifu must learn to open his eyes and see things as they are, not as what he wishes them to be.
It’s these two characters that actually drive the story and pull the viewer into the film. The interaction between Shifu and Po is both entertaining and interesting. It shows that a little care to the story makes a big difference. Building on this solid base you get quite a nice package.
The animation is executed well. It’s got a bit of a simplistic look, but it seems to be modeled off of traditional Chinese woodcuts and paintings. There is a lot of color here, with some scenes popping right off the screen with eye candy. The animation crew really comes through with the action scenes. Character movement is very fluid and matches well with the animals involved. Tigress moves like a cat, as does Tai Lung (a snow leopard). They also put in plenty of crowd pleasing Kung Fu movies and gravity defying magic that wouldn’t seem out of place in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. The battles are all very clear so you know exactly where your heroes and villains are, and how the battle is progressing. Added to that are all the typical Kung Fu sound effects that add a bit of heft to the battle scenes. The big action set pieces are impressive, with the high light being Tai Lung’s escape from his prison.
My only comment about these scenes and much of the action oriented stuff in general is that it is all of the Loony Tunes variety of violence. In other words, characters can fall off cliffs, get kicked repeatedly in the head or suffer deadly explosions and show up a few seconds later looking virtually unharmed (maybe a little blacked by soot at the most). Now I know this is a family film and I’m not expecting bloody chunks to be flying around the film. But it does make Kung Fu – a fighting and self defense technique – look like a fun series of punches that doesn’t really hurt anyone too much. There is a strange contradiction about characters talking about Tai Lung killing people, when the rest of the film shows Kung Fu battles ending in characters looking a little tired, but not the worse for wear.
In additional there are some very nice animated sequences that provide some lovely visuals. Again, the lack of detail can hurt these scenes (check out some of the beauty shots in Pixar’s “Wall – E” and there is no comparison). But overall these scenes are well executed, especially when Master Oogway (the wise old turtle) ascends into the sky.
Supporting all these scenes is a perfect fit score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell. It’s a great combination of Zimmer’s action sound (very modern and very much like the music from “Backdraft” or “Crimson Tide”) and a traditional Asian flavor. There’s a great use of Asian instruments. This combination keeps the action music moving, and supports the quiet moments very well. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing some of the music away from the film and it is a great listen, one that will entertain anyone who enjoyed the scores to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “Hero”.
As I mentioned earlier the script is an improvement over what Dreamworks has worked on earlier. I appreciated the fact that the bodily function humor and pop-culture references were almost non-existent in the film. Much of the humor in the film comes from dialogue and physical humor as Po attempts to train in Kung Fu. This is balanced well with the action and dramatic scenes and makes a nicely balanced screen play. Again, nothing super insightful or powerful, but entertaining.
The actors do a very credible job in their roles. To be honest I was very afraid of Jack Black in the role of Po. But he does a very good job, keeping low key. I forgot it was Black in the part really quickly and accepted Po as the lovable geek that he is. Also of note is Dustin Hoffman as Shifu. His voice is very familiar and a bit distracting, but it carries the emotions needed in the role. He makes Shifu’s arrogance come through, but also reveal his passion for Kung Fu. His transformation by the end of the film is very effective.
The rest of the cast performs the parts, but doesn’t really add to them. This falls mostly because the characters don’t really have much to them. The Furious Five are just foils for Po and Tai Lung. Casting Angelia Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, and Lucy Liu doesn’t do much other than put a famous name in the roles. Ian McShane does a good job as the villainous Tai Lung. Again, not much depth is given to the character in the script, but McShane is very good at adding the snarl into his dialogue and sound like a bad ass. Randall Duk Kim as Oogway and James Hong as Mr. Ping provide actual Asian accents for Asian characters – what a novelty.The whole film is executed well. With animation collecting all the elements of the film into one entertaining whole is the challenge and this is done very well in “Kung Fu Panda”. All the parts are executed well and combined into a fun little film. After my first viewing of the film, I was surprised how entertaining it was and enjoyed it quite a bit. But the true test was the repeat viewing. In many cases Dreamworks animated films don’t hold up for a second viewing – but “Kung Fu Panda” did. It was just as fun as I remembered, and think it’s a great step forward for the company. Anyone looking for some Kung Fu fun will be completely entertained with this film.