Sunday, June 08, 2008

REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda

Here's a classic case of form getting in the way of function: "Kung Fu Panda" has a story, script and set of vocal performances that make for an ideal quick, no-frills comedy cartoon. Match those elements with the energetic leaness of Anime or the askew anarchy of the "house styles" of Nickelodeon or the Cartoon Network animated faire and you'd have a nigh-perfect kiddie actioner. Unfortunately, here said elements have been paired with lush, intricate, expensive-looking 3D computer animation... and it just doesn't really fit. The animation is all gorgeous, and the attention to aping the look of authentic Chinese fantasy/action films is admirable, but it doesn't really "go with" the light slapstick of the overall peice - the film actually OPENS with a traditionally-animated sequence, and it works better visually than the rest. It's like getting David Lean to helm a Three Stooges short. It doesn't really make the movie BAD, just not as "complete" as it might've otherwise been.

Set in a version of ancient China populated by anthromorphic animals, it's the story of Po the Panda (Jack Black) a chubby oaf who works in a noodle shop with his father (James Hong, brilliantly cast as an excitable duck - you read that correctly) but dreams of becoming a martial-artist like The Furious Five; the local superhero team trained to protect the region from danger by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman.)

The Furious Five include Mantis (Seth Rogen,) Crane (David Cross,) Viper (Lucy Liu,) Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Tigress (Angelina Jolie.) Though Po carries on at some length about their various legendary adventures, we gather they mainly exist to act as a last line of defense against Tai-Lung (Ian McShane) an evil Snow Leopard who has mastered kung-fu on a nearly supernatural level and will destroy the entire land - if necessary - in his quest to steal a sacred scroll from Shifu's temple. When word comes that Tai-Lung has escaped from prison, the Furious Five assemble (along with the rest of the village) so that the temple elder can annoint one of them The Dragon Warrior - a hero of prophecy who will be given the scroll and become the ultimate weapon against the coming danger. Coincidences (or are they?) conspire, you may have guessed, so that the chosen warrior ends up being none other than Po.

So, yes, it's a broad send-up of "chosen one" kung fu flicks; with animal-ized versions of all the attendant training montages, epic confrontations and heroic poses. The average six year-old will be able to plot out, beat-for-beat, where it'll go from the moment Po is "chosen" on (and kung-fu devotees with see most of the dramatic twists coming) along with everyone else. The good news is in the details, specifically the voice-acting. It's interesting to see Jolie cast - even vocally - as a character who ISN'T defined by sex-appeal for a change, while James Hong is a revelation as Po's over-eager father. McShane isn't given enough screentime, but credit the film with making Tai-Lung a 100% full-on heavy who always looks to pose a very tangible threat to the good guys. He doesn't joke around, has no off-kilter personality quirks, he's just dangerous. The unquestionable highlights, though, are the scenes where Po good-naturedly bumbles his way through Shifu's Shaw Brothers style training regimen.

No classic, would be a lot better using different animation, but a lot of fun.

FINAL RATING: 7/10