A film review by Craig J. Koban


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

Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne / Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger

I 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. 

Dreamworks’ 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 learn 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 awesomeness. 

Po 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.  All is not well, though, in this peaceful and tranquil land as an ancient turtle kung fu master named Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) has foreseen a vision that the unstoppable force of  Tia-Lung (Ian McShane) will escape from an incredibly well fortified prison and seek out his own former rat master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman voicing this character that suspiciously looks an awful lot like Yoda with fur).  Oogway now must decide who will be chosen by him as the “Dragon Warrior” that has been destined to defeat Tia-Lung and be the recipient of the legendary Dragon Scrolls, a parchment that no one, not even the masters, have ever gazed upon.  As a result, Oogway and Shifu set up a tournament to narrow down the choice of the one who will bring peace to the…Valley of Peace. 

There 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.   

Poor 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. 

From 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. 

If 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. 

Nitpicking 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. 

KUNG 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.  The 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? 

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