A film review by Craig J. Koban
KUNG FU PANDA
2008, PG, 91 mins.
2008, PG, 91 mins.
Po: Jack Black / Master Shifu: Dustin Hoffman / Tigress: Angelina
Jolie / Tai Lung: Ian McShane / Mantis: Seth Rogen / Viper:
Lucy Liu / Crane: David Cross / Oogway: Randall Duk Kim / Mr.
Ping: James Hong / Zeng: Dan Fogler / Commander Vachir: Michael
Clarke Duncan / Monkey: Jackie Chan
don’t know a hell of a lot about pandas, so I decided to do a bit of
research on the subject.
The "giant panda" is native to central-western and southwestern China.
They're definable by their distinctive black
patches around their eyes, over their ears, and across the hindquarters of
their bodies. Belonging to the order of Carnivora, the pandas have a very
healthy appetite of honey, eggs, fish, various fruits, and, astoundingly,
bamboo, which accounts for nearly 99 per cent of their total diet.
So popular is the image of the panda in China that it's prominently
displayed on many Chinese gold, silver and platinum commemorative coins.
Oh…there’s one thing that most of my sources left out:
Pandas also know kung fu.
sublimely entitled KUNG FU PANDA goes out of its way to reveal this very
hidden characteristic of that very cute endangered species.
It’s main character is, yes, a panda named Po (voiced by Jack
Black), who spends most of his time as an apprentice noodle-maker under
the tutelage of his “father” Mr. Ping (James Hong), who just happens
to be as far removed from the panda species as one father can get: he’s
a stork. Yet, this dad loves
his dear old panda son, but he has high aspirations that Po one day will
the secret ingredient to his famous secret ingredient noodle soup.
Po does not have the heart to tell his poppa that, deep down, he
has little enthusiasm to be one with the culinary arts.
What he really craves is to be a kung fu master who will, to
loosely paraphrase him, blind his enemies with the sheer luminosity of his
has one big problem with his goals: Being a panda, he’s rather large and
fat and, to make it even more difficult, he's arguably the laziest animal
in ancient China. He’s
so obese that he can’t see his own toes if he looked down to inspect
them. He is clearly the least
appealing sight in the whole Valley of Peace that he and his father live
in. Yet, Po sees past his
girth and lack of physical dexterity and still yearns to be a skilled purveyor
of gravity defying mayhem.
are five distinct candidates for the job, all students of Shifu’s
teachings and all very different animal species bringing a unique blend of
martial arts mastery to the table. We
have a monkey appropriately named...Monkey (Jackie Chan), Tigress
(Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), and the smallest,
but just as resilient and tough, candidate, Mantis (Seth Rogen).
The five battle it out on an ancient temple that seems to be on the
highest peak in the Valley (the stairways leading up to the temple seems
to go on to infinity). Of
course, Po desperately wants to go to this event, and his dad orders him
to take a noodle stand there to make some sales.
Unfortunately, Po has to abandon his cart, seeing as he can barely
get his big, furry butt up the laboriously long and high stairwell.
ol’ Po. Just as he arrives
the palace gates slam shut on him, so he is forced to watch the
proceedings through a slit in one of the walls.
Tired of his bad viewpoint of the event, he engages in a series of
hilarious schemes to get himself into the Palace, which culminates predictably
with him flying into the Palace right in the middle of Oogway picking the
Chosen One. It seems like he
was poised to select Tigress, but Po inadvertently hops right in her way
and, yup, Oogway selects the lethargic panda as the savoir of the valley.
This does not sit well with the five combatants, not to mention
Shifu, who simply can’t see this plump and obsessively hungry panda being
up to the challenge of becoming a kung fu expert.
this point on, KUNG FU PANDA becomes a fairly dime-a-dozen underdog story
of perseverance. The hero has to find it within himself to be all that he
can be, overcome all odds and gain acceptance from his teacher and peers,
and inevitably train himself to confront the villain in the end for a
climatic showdown. The
underlining story behind the film is staunchly mechanical and predictable,
but there is some fun along the way. I
especially liked the nifty little twist that occurs in the plot when Shifu
comes to the epiphany of what Po’s secret hidden talent is and how that will
allow him to become a serious threat to Tia-Lung.
The film has some moments of comic inspiration and ingenuity in
these otherwise obligatory training montages.
there were some negative things to say about KUNG FU PANDA then it would
be that it’s premise of martial arts skilled animals is not really
altogether fresh (four very famous turtles in half shell that knew jujitsu
predate KUNG FU PANDA by about 20 years or so).
Also, the story, as mentioned, never really develops much tension
or surprises, seeing as anyone can see precisely where it’s going from
the very beginning. Another
problem with the film is that the five students of Shifu are never really
developed into interesting characters.
Aside from Black’s Po and Hoffman’s Shifu, there’s a lack of
energy and spunk in the other voice talents’ efforts.
David Cross, who has been frequently hilarious in other work, is
regrettably muted here voicing Crane and Jackie Chan – an integral
staple of the whole martial arts genre – barely has a handful of lines.
Ditto for Lucy Liu’s Viper and for Seth Rogen’s mostly
forgettable work as Mantis (Rogen has such a distinctive voice and manner
of enunciation that why he was not used more here is questionable) and
Angelina Jolie barely makes her presence felt as Tigress.
aside, there is still a considerable amount to like here in KUNG FU PANDA.
Black’s rowdy energy and larger-than-life zeal is well tailored
to this character (thankfully, his oftentimes shameless, camera mugging
smugness he has shown in other films does not distract his voice work
here). Dustin Hoffman gives a
surprisingly decent performance voicing his rodent master (he gives weight
to frequently weightless dialogue exchanges) and Randall Dun Kim nearly
steals the limelight by underplaying the turtle master.
Ian McShane, who is able to harness dangerous menace with such
authority, is perfectly modified here as the villain.
FU PANDA also finds a nice dichotomy between goofy pratfalls and sight
gags and its rousing martial arts action sequences.
Kids will, no doubt, be fully engaged with the more obvious shenanigans of
the chubby Po’s antics, but I think that fans of action and kung fu
cinema will definitely be enthused by the film’s rich and dense
tapestry. Watching the film it's clear that the makers wanted to go
for a distinct and authentic Chinese and kung fu feel. Production designer Raymond Zibach and art director Tang Heng
reportedly spent years researching the Chinese arts, not to mention
finding inspiration in the form of famous kung fu epics like CROUCHING
TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and HERO.
result is a film that has wonderfully luxurious, magnificently colored
and detailed eye candy that gives the story an epic tone and feel.
The action scenes as well seem very well grounded in the reality of
kung fu while bolstering it up for the wild, cartoonishly amped up world
the film presents. Most
thankfully, KUNG FU PANDA stays rooted in its decent attempts at blending
fantasy, action, light comedy, and a moderately solemn story that does not
degenerate into yet another series of pop culture references and
lampooning other kung fu films. As
far as martial arts movies go, KUNG FU PANDA takes it subject fairly
seriously, and that’s a blessing.
All in and all, and despite some of its weaknesses, KUNG FU PANDA is a film that is awfully hard to find fault with and dislike. It’s habitually cute without being too cuddly, rousing with its action and kung fu theatrics, and has lavish computer animation that is polished, detailed, and breathtaking to simply look at and take in. The film is certainly not among the finest of the recent Computer animated features (that accolade is reserved for BEOWULF and RATATOUILLE), but it’s still a wickedly giddy and enjoyable time at the cinema.
And who knew that pandas could match their mighty appetites with an
equally lethal punch?