Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda
Release Date: June 6, 2008
· John Stevenson and Mark Osborne
· Jack Black
· Dustin Hoffman
· Ian McShane
· Angelina Jolie
· Jackie Chan
· Lucy Liu
· IMDb: Kung Fu Panda
by Jim Pappas
Published: June 2, 2008
We are all born with our own unique set of attributes. Some of us are big, some of us are small, some of us are fast, and some of us are slow. The point is each and every one of us are who we are, no matter how much we may wish to be someone or something else. Learning how to use your own uniqueness to your own advantage is the lesson at the center of the story in the terrific new computer animated film "Kung Fu Panda."
Starring an A list group of actors as the voices of the characters, the film is not only a visual treat, it is one of those rare movies from which you leave the theater feeling that all is well and good, and you can dream your dreams without fear. Jack Black is the voice of Po Ping, the panda whose life we enter as the film begins. Black's work here is exemplary, and his casting in this role was a stroke of genius. Po's father, Mr. Ping (voice of the always excellent James Hong), dreams of Po taking over the family business, and believes that his son shares his vision. Po has other dreams though, which include becoming a legendary kung fu hero, friend to the oppressed and scourge to villains.
The day we join the film becomes a special one for Po‘s village, as the kung fu master Oogway (voice of Randall Duk Kim, whom I can't thank enough), whose monastery houses The Furious Five and stands guard over Po's village, realizes it is time to reveal the identity of the Dragon Warrior, the semi-mythical savior of all that is true. The Furious Five are a group of creatures that include a monkey (Monkey, voice of Jackie Chan, totally underused here), a tiger (Tigress, Angelina Jolie, and she is most excellent), a praying mantis (Mantis, voice of Seth Rogen, outstanding also), Viper (Lucy Liu, yes), and Crane (David Cross, another yes). All the actors in "Kung Fu Panda" are not only perfectly cast, but deliver the kind of performances that generate a sense of richness and depth to the creatures we see onscreen.
In the end, and I should say this, of all the performances I enjoyed in the film, it was Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu, Po's eventual mentor and part time nemesis, that ultimately stands out.
The bottom line with "Kung Fu Panda" is that most if not all of us can identify with one of the characters in the film, and for that I have to give credit to the screenwriters, Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, and those who came up with the story idea, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris. These men have obviously suckled at the teat of what works and used the knowledge they've gained from that to make something special, even though the story told in "Kung Fu Panda" is a simple one.
The Dragon's Scroll resides in the monastery, guarded by the Furious Five, and master's Shifu and the aging Oogway, who is a turtle by the way, and fun is made of that to good effect. The scroll is to be read only by the Dragon Warrior, and Oogway is expected to anoint one of the Five with that title during a ceremony within the monastery‘s walls. The whole village is invited to witness this event, and Po's father (a duck, and don't ask) directs Po to take noodles up the thousand (or more) steps to the monastery. Po's efforts to take the cart up the steps fails, and he ends up being locked out of the monastery and is unable to watch the anointing ceremony. What follows is high-end slapstick, which ends when Po crashes to earth at the foot of Oogway as he is about to name the Dragon Warrior.
We meet the villain in "Kung Fu Panda" later in the film, and what a villain he is. Called Tai Lung (Ian McShane, just marvelous), he was raised and trained from infancy by Master Shifu (who is, I think, a lemur). Tai Lung is a snow leopard held prisoner in a faraway dungeon, with a thousand guards whose mission is to keep this single prisoner at bay. The garrison at the prison is led by an overconfident rhinoceros, Commander Vachir (Michael Clarke Duncan, just great), and we get to visit the prison when a nervous Shifu sends a messenger, Zeng (a duck, voiced by Dan Fogler) to check on things. Tai Lung lusts after the Dragon's scroll, which is reported to possess an amazing secret, one that bestows unlimited power on the reader. It is the threat of the scroll being given to another that drives Tai Lung's thirst for confrontation with his former mentor and surrogate father. Tai Lung ended up in prison years earlier after his first attempt to acquire the scroll was defeated by Master Oogway, which led Tai Lung to lay waste to the village below the monastery before being captured.
The computer generated animation in "Kung Fu Panda" is as good as anything we've seen, and there were a couple of scenes that almost looked like real footage, and not something artificial. That is almost scary, as the future of movies might be filmmaking without film.
Having great CGI is one thing, doing something special with it is another, and it is the overall concept and execution that makes what we witness in this film special indeed. There are scenes, like a chop stick fight over a dumpling between Po and Master Shifu, that are almost Chaplinesque, and are just brilliantly conceived and executed. The fighting sequences are just wonderful and, despite the violence of them, come across much the same way as the violence in a Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck cartoon. There is a lack of malice and a good natured aura around the entire production, which makes this film definitely suitable for younger children.
The richness of the story, the excellence of the cast, and the brilliant direction by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne makes "Kung Fu Panda" a classic, one that will be enjoyed now and for years to come.