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Kung Fu Panda / *** (PG)Posted Sunday, June 8, 2008, at 11:43 PM
Every animal is Kung Fu fighting in DreamWorks' latest animated release "Kung Fu Panda".
Since CGI animation has become the standard format for family-oriented entertainment, it has become subject to the same quality ups and down that 2-D animation was privy to after its first few years. Gone are the days where the format ensured a certain degree of quality--either visual or content wise--due to the filmmakers' passion for the projects. Now the studios are churning them out like factory products, and CGI animation can be as basic and uninspiring as any other family film. But occasionally, it can still achieve the visual splendor of not just some of the greatest animations, but of any film. The content of "Kung Fu Panda" is not incredibly original, but the stage it sets allows for some of the most splendid visuals in recent memory.
Po (voiced by Jack Black, "Shark Tale") dreams of becoming a Kung Fu master and protector of the land like his idols the Furious Five. But as a large, clumsy Panda bear, he is an unlikely hero. He doesn't really seem to fit in anywhere, even in his father's eatery where he is being groomed to take over the family business. He barely fits between the tables and the question of how a Panda came to be the son of a duck is an awkwardly avoided question.
One day, the temple master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim, "The Matrix Reloaded") holds a celebration to choose the next great Kung Fu master, the Dragon Warrior. Through a series of mishaps and just plain being out of shape, Po fails to arrive at the temple in time to get into the ceremony. He fashions himself a device to carry him over the locked gate, however, and somehow ends up becoming Oogway's choice for the Dragon Warrior. In Oogway's words, "There are no accidents."
It is no surprise that the Furious Five are upset about the choice of Po as the Dragon Warrior, having dedicated their lives to the martial arts. Their master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium") determines to scare Po out of the temple within a day so one of his lifelong students can claim the mantle, but in a beautifully written and rendered scene Oogway convinces Shifu that Po's claim as the Dragon Warrior is no mistake. Oogway's words of wisdom are simple poetic nuggets of Zen philosophy that are hard to argue against.
Meanwhile, Shifu's former protégé Tai Lung (Ian McShane, "The Golden Compass") escapes from a maximum security prison where he has been held since he rebelled against Shifu when Oogway denied him the Dragon Warrior rights. Shifu determines to prepare Po as the Dragon Warrior, while Tigress (Angelina Jolie, "Beowulf"), bitter about being overlooked, leads the rest of the Furious Five into battle against Tai Lung.
All this plot makes the movie sound like a serious martial arts actioner, and, in the scenes with martial arts, it is. But first and foremost it is a family comedy. Jack Black's name above the title of the movie is no mistake either. This movie is pure Black, and if you don't like him, you probably won't like this movie. Po is cute, obnoxious and pathetic, but he wins you over fairly early. And like so many family films, you can't really knock the lessons about accepting yourself and others for what you or they are.
But the most impressive element of this movie is the animation--or more specifically, the action of the animation, which is approached by the animators as if it were live. There are scenes in which a double focus is used. Characters come from out of focus into focus as if the camera couldn't keep up with the speed of the action. Slow motion is used more fluidly with the action than in most modern movies, where it has become custom since "The Matrix" to suddenly slow down and speed up the action to show the audience how great the CGI effects are. Here the CGI seems to exist more as a natural state.
Perhaps the action seems so natural because so much attention is paid to the details of the environments in which they take place. There is great beauty to be witnessed in this virtual world that embraces its eastern philosophical roots so warmly. The peach tree where the characters go to contemplate their fates has the majestic beauty that so many Chinese martial arts films work hard to achieve. In his scenes of action and klutzery, Po seems to achieve a strange balance of cartoonish buoyancy and natural magnificence. Even in the dark action of Tai Lung's breathtaking escape, there is a vibrancy that is unique to modern martial arts films, like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or "House of Flying Daggers". And Po's opening dream sequence is a stunning example of inspired 2-D animation.
The inherent silliness imbued with Jack Black's personality and the entire premise of talking animals as martial arts experts--Shifu is some Asian raccoon relative while the Furious Five are collectively a tiger, a monkey, a praying mantis, a snake, and a crane--keep this movie firmly in the light entertainment category. But the writing is sharp, the action is fun and the comedy is intelligent. There is plenty to enjoy in "Kung Fu Panda" for kids and adults alike.
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.