Friday, June 06, 2008

"Kung Fu Panda" -- * * *

I admit, I wasn't really looking forward to seeing Dreamworks' latest zany animated work, "Kung Fu Panda." The title, and thus the premise, are so lowest-common-denominator and painfully high-concept on the surface (I'd been making fun of it for weeks). It seemed to adopt the filmmaking mindset of most movies of this ilk, operating under the principle that kids will watch anything, and a wacky, simple premise (e.g.: tap-dancing penguins) is all you need for them to drag their parents. So, it's much to my surprise that the movie takes its simple, title-explaining concept and runs with it, never settling for the bare minimum of creativity. Taking a left-field approach, in a way that reminded me a bit of last summer's underrated "Surf's Up," this is an extremely entertaining movie that's often very funny, and equally successful in its execution of action and packaging of morals for kids. The results are truly inspired, doing some innovative things with the medium, and anyone who allows themselves to be even a little susceptible to the movie's charms will have trouble resisting.

Our story is set in China's Valley of Peace, apparently populated entirely by talking animals. Panda Po (Jack Black) works in a noodle shop/restaurant for his father (the indomitable James Hong) and dreams of being a martial arts master. All the while, turtle monk Master Oogway has had a vision that the evil Tai Lung (Ian McShane) is going to escape from prison, then destroy and dominate the Valley of peace. To stop this, Oogway must decide who must to become the dragon warrior. The five obvious candidates, the Furious Five, are all trained under sensei Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman); they are Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), and Mantis (Seth Rogen). Somehow, through a series of random coincidences, the elderly Oogway chooses Po as the dragon warrior, infuriating Shifu and the Furious Five (who Po worships as a fan); their disbelief is understandable since the portly Po has trouble climbing up more than three or four stairs and has his biggest workouts while eating meals. But, as the decision has been made by Master Oogway, it must be accepted and Shifu must train Po and assess if he has any talent or capability, or ensure he doesn't make it through training. This is basically "Rocky" meets "The Karate Kid," formula-wise, and you know where things are going; the fun is getting there (literally-- the training period doesn't end until about an hour into this 83-minute movie).

While it seems every children's film has some phony positive message(s) shoehorned in, the ones here are never obtrusive and actually could do a bit of good. Like this week's "You Don't Mess with the Zohan" (arguably the only thing the two movies have in common), there's a nice throughline about following your passions and believing in yourself that actually rings true; who among us can't relate to a panda who slaves in a noodle shop longing to be a Kung Fu master? There's many a waiter working in NYC cafes with dreams that're seemingly as unlikely. I also found it refreshing, and positively inspiring, how Po learns to turn his weaknesses into strengths (e.g.: using his fat as an asset in the climactic battle) and having confidence in himself being more important than actually having skills ("There is no secret ingredient"). It might be a reach, but hey, if it makes one fat kid even a little bit less self-conscious about himself, that's more good than most films of this ilk usually attempt. But besides the message-whipping on display, this is a great movie for kids just in the respect that they will positively love it. It never stops moving, propelling briskly from one plot event to the next, and I can virtually guarantee they'll never get bored. My kid-filled Saturday morning screening was nearly silent for the movie's entirety, which is generally unheard of during such events.

Still, as appealing as it is for kids, there's one audience that'll enjoy it even more: fans of old Kung fu films. This is a genuine Kung fu movie, not just a family movie with some Kung fu elements; there's a wealth of well-done action and fight sequences throughout, and at almost every turn, there's an effort to pay tribute to films that clearly inspired this one's creation. From the clever, chop-socky take on the Dreamworks logo at the outset to Shifu's classic sensei elements (he boasts crazy white facial hair and the ability to heal and cripple with a few precise taps), there's clearly a love for the film's origins on display. On top of which, this is a significantly more appealing way to introduce kids to the Kung Fu fighting styles (Crane, Monkey, Tigress, etc) than April's "The Forbidden Kingdom," which was oddly more violent and more infantile than this. And you don't need to be a Kung fu expert to "get" the excess of parodic slo-mo and recognize elements you may have glimpsed in the "Kill Bill" films (I was reminded of the five-point palm exploding heart technique on more than one occasion).

Lest I forget to mention, this young-skewing animated film is often very, very funny. Aside from the simple ideas of Po possibly being picked as dragon warrior because master Turtle is going senile, and being motivated to do Kung Fu properly by food incentives, the filmmakers get considerable mileage out of Po's unashamed fanboy nature. He's such a Kung Fu / Furious Five nerd, he geeks out over exact moments that took place at their lair, and during training, he actually enjoys getting pummeled by these guys because they're his heroes (upon being kicked in the face, he utters, "that was awesome!"). The moments of broad slapstick -- at one point, he's hit in the nuts, dubbed his "tenders" -- surprisingly work, and the incongruous juxtaposition of highbrow Asian culture and a fat, clumsy panda are not overlooked ("Panda, we do not wash our pits in the pool of Sacred Tears"). I won't spoil it, but there's an acupuncture gag midway through that was so funny, I literally had trouble stifling my chuckling for a minute or two afterwards.

The animation here is gorgeous, but to be fair, that's kind of expected from these sort of films by this point. Still, there's a really keen visual style on display here that incorporates Chinese art and styles and utilizes a gorgeous color palette and shadings. The film opens with an exaggerated 2-D dream sequence, and when the transition is made into 3-D animation, the effect is fairly remarkable and almost reason alone to see this on IMAX (if not likely to be quite as sensory experience as "Speed Racer"). There are consistent visual flourishes that etched memorable images into my brain, chiefly the really effective scenes of Tai Lung chained up in his below ground dungeon, and the truly beautiful way Tigress's eyes glow at night. I have a feeling everyone's going to have a sequence or two to claim as their favorite, but I particularly adored said two-dimensional opening dream sequence (Po narrates, "Legend tells of a legendary warrior..."), the sure-to-be-infamous training battle over dumplings, and Tai Lung's escape from his dungeon, which had me actually muttering an awe-inspired "very cool."

Admittedly, those who are regularly annoyed by Jack Black will continue to be annoyed by Jack Black, but it's superb voice casting. He makes Po so incredibly likeable, charming and adorable, without relying purely on his Jack-Black-isms of funny sound effects; we genuinely like and understand where Po is coming from, and even as a talking panda who does Kung Fu, we believe him as a real character. He's occasionally prone to crying, and not always for laughs, and his unabashed sensitivity is what makes him such an unlikely, and refreshing, hero. Last time Black was suspected of "selling out," it was for the similarly kid-centric "School of Rock" -- which currently provided us with his best performance to date -- and like with that film, this provides him with a potentially defining character/project, and not just the cashing of a paycheck. Hoffman is almost as perfect casting, taking a part that could've easily been sleepwalked through and imbuing it with a sense of warmth, frustration and wit that makes it a pleasure whenever Shifu's onscreen. McShane also has a lot of fun as Tailung, though it helps how the character's been drawn; he's a villain who's not only genuinely frightening, but actually has reasonable motivation and isn't just "evil." The rest of the voice cast is fine, but doesn't really do much (most noticeably Jolie, who has now done two voice over jobs with no personality).

To be clear, I liked "Kung Fu Panda;" I think it's ultimately too simple and unspectacular to all-out love, but perhaps my enthusiasm is just boosted by the fact that the film is a respite from a genre that is known for shameless pandering and minimal effort. This isn't anything resembling the soulless "Shark Tale" and "Bee Movie" (or "Shrek the Third") that have been brought to us by Dreamworks Animation in the past; its closest cousin might be the oft-forgotten "Antz" from 1998. What largely sets it apart from the feral pack aside from the effervescent enthusiasm/creativity, is the fact that the movie avoids the lazy crutch of instantly-dating pop culture references, and if I recall correctly, poop or fart jokes. In fact, the movie almost entirely eschews tired cliches; even a rendition of the seemingly-inevitable "Kung Fu Fighting" (used in all the trailers) is thankfully saved for the closing credits.

"Kung Fu Panda" may not be a classic, but I think a substantial portion of its target audience is going to love it, and those who had minimal interest may be surprised how gosh durn enjoyable it is. While this may be due to it not having the expectations of something like "Iron Man" or "Indiana Jones," it gives itself a unique edge by being a summer movie that actually delivers what it promises and then some (a movie making me smile for most of its duration is never a bad thing). Despite an underwhelming pitch and marketing campaign, it packs a significantly greater amount of wit, energy and creativity than we've come to expect from family films, but whether kids are in tow or not, "Kung Fu Panda" offers a surprising, at least for me, amount of entertainment for your buck.


Blogger N2 said...

Wow. Huge spoiler alert. Other than that, it was a pretty good review. I was wondering why Jackie Chan had such a small role in the movie. He had a minute's worth of dialogue the whole movie.

11:45 AM  

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