Talk about a genuine surprise: not only did the film make over $200 million domestically but Kung Fu Panda managed to do something that few non-Disney/Pixar collaborations have been able to do: garner scads of positive reviews from the critics, almost all of whom praised the film for it’s fantastic visuals and comedy. In addition to the animation the film was backed up by an all-star voice cast, ranging from star Jack Black to supporting members Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, and Jackie Chan. As odd as it may sound for a powerhouse trio to be the back-up to still-relative newcomer Black, the separation is key, as Kung Fu Panda would not be infused with as much life as it is if I weren’t for Black’s performance which no doubt helped keep it alive at the box office, even as Pixar unleashed Wall-E in the same month.
Enthusiastic, big and a little clumsy, Po (Jack Black)works in his family’s noodle shop while daydreaming about becoming a Kung Fu master. His dreams soon become reality when he is unexpectedly chosen to join the world of Kung Fu and study alongside his idols-the legendary fighters Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan)-under the leadership of their guru, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). But before they know it, the vengeful and treacherous snow leopard Tai Lung is headed their way, and it’s up to Po to defend everyone from the oncoming threat. Can he turn his dreams of becoming a Kung Fu hero into reality? Po puts his heart and his girth into the task, and ultimately finds that his greatest weaknesses turn out to be his greatest strengths.
I must say, DreamWorks Animation has really come into their own lately. With a shaky start with their debut of Antz, the studio was never really considered original as it seemed to mimic what Pixar was doing (with their debut it went up against A Bug’s Life and again against Finding Nemo with Shark’s Tale) and never with great results. When the studio focused on more original outings, however, studio, audience and critics were all in for a treat. Shrek scored big and the subsequent sequel was a hit (although the third entry was a dud). Unfortunately the studio go into a bit of an over-crazy animal faze with Madagascar and Over the Hedge coming out within years of one another. Another dud in Bee Movie and hopes weren’t too high for their next effort, but a little promotion and the talents of Jack Black have propelled DreamWorks Animation into the spotlight once again.
I knew going into it that Kung Fu Panda was going to be incredibly entertaining, if only from the trailers and the way the press was handled for the film. From the stylistic and highly impressive opening that manages to induce goosebumps almost immediately, Kung Fu Panda sets itself up to be a stylish and entertaining animated film that all audiences can enjoy without worry. There’s nothing in here that’s dumbed down for kids and a few jokes are included that may fly over kids heads, but that’s the enjoyable part, as an adult, that comes with these films. The humor given in the film doesn’t rely on the usual burp and fart jokes (in fact, I don’t think there was a single fart joke in the entirety of the film, as hard to believe as that may be), which in of itself is a breath of fresh air. While the morals and the presentation of the film is really nothing new, the way it’s told is what makes the film so remarkable. There is plenty of heart infused into this film which is where it separates itself from other DreamWorks Animation films and begins to associate itself with a Pixar film. Cartoons can include mindless violence, but it’s the core of the movie that will keep young and old coming back and Kung Fu Panda has enough of it that it will no doubt go down as a classic of the 2000 generation.
The aforementioned voice talent was mentioned already, but I feel I must again. The only three performers I recognized initially were Black, Hoffman and Rogen and honestly had no idea Liu, Chan or Jolie were even in this film. It’s not that their performances didn’t stand out; it’s just that I didn’t even really hear any signifying traits that they usually bring to characters in their inflections, so there was nothing for me to link them to. Which I suppose is rather commendable, although why these Dreamworks films don’t use some more of Hollywood’s vast world of voice talent for these things, I don’t know.
Another element of the film that was surprising to me was the animation. It’s nothing to do with the level of CGI detail (I think after seeing Sully’s hair move in Monster’s Inc., I officially determined that to be the peak of CGI animation and have since stopped caring how good the medium looks), but more with how the animation styles are used in the film. The opening is done in a traditional almost cel-shaded appearance and anyone who played the video game Okami will know what I’m talking about when I reference that. It’s a fantastic opener to the film and the CGI that follows it is quite amazing as well. The animation is frequently slowed down, both for comedic and action effects, which can get to be a bit much at times but overall the animation in the film is nothing short of fantastic.
Whether it be the animation, voice actors, music or writing, Kung Fu Panda is just a real treat. As I said before it doesn’t really do anything original, but it’s so humorous and full of life that it’s a hard film to deny. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel to this one is as entertaining as the Shrek sequel (and not anywhere near the Shrek threequel) was able to be, in that it expanded upon the universe and characters in such a way that made it almost better than the first. Whatever the case may be for future installments, this one comes Highly Recommended.
Unlike the DVD edition, the Blu-ray release of Kung Fu Panda does not come with the Secrets of the Furious Five short, so those who want to see that one may need to give that a rental or borrow it from a friend. Fortunately (at least in my opinion) the short really isn’t really worth watching as it doesn’t entertain quite like Kung Fu Panda does. As is, Kung Fu Panda comes in a standard Elite Blu-ray case with inserts inside for the BD-Live user guide and an ad for HP computers.
Video for this film is absolutely astonishing. While I had issues with the DVD transfer when the animation and action got really fast or there was a lot of things on screen moving at once, this Blu-ray transfer contains none of those hindrances and is quite frankly as perfect as you can get when it comes to transfers. The AVC encoded 2.35:1 transfer is absolutely breathtaking, especially the opening anime inspired intro. Everything simply flows beautifully here and the later sequences of the film shine as well. It’s to be expected for a film created entirely on computers, but I had no idea just how beautiful this film was going to look on Blu-ray.
As can be expected the Dolby True HD 5.1 mix is also quite enjoyable. Whether it be fireworks, a rustling wind or some other stray sound effect that speeds around the room, Kung Fu Panda is engrossing from beginning to end. There is plenty of surround speaker play as well as subwoofer action to keep ones senses attuned to the speakers in the room. Quite frankly this film is almost as much fun to watch as it is to listen to. Overall the technical presentations in the video and audio department is a home run—I found absolutely no problems with neither the video nor the audio.
First up we have the extras on the main film which include a full-length filmmakers commentary, which is highly entertaining and informative and certainly makes up for the lack of any real documentary on the making of the film (what we get are a bit too much of the usual fluff pieces). It’s a highly entertaining track and if you enjoyed the film in the least, you’ll dig this one a lot. Next up we have “Meet the Cast” (13:14), which interviews the cast about their participation in the film with Black serving as a kind of producer of it as he comments on every one of the cast members interviewed. “Pushing the Boundaries” talks about the animation of the film while “Sound Design” (3:52) discusses the sound. “Food Network Exclusive: Alton Brown at Mr. Ping’s Noodle House” (4:40) is another little fluff piece, while “Help Save the Wild Pandas” (1:57) and “How to Use Chopsticks” (2:55) are short instructional tools. A Dreamworks Animation Video Jukebox, some trailers (including one for the hilarious looking Dreamworks Animated Monsters vs. Aliens) “Kung Fu Fighting” Music Video (2:29) and “Dragon Warrior Training Academy” close out the extras for the film.
For the rest of our extras, they are decidedly less interesting and much more of the kiddy nature. It’s also interesting to note that these extras are found on the DVD of the Secrets of the Furious Five, so why we weren’t given that on the Blu-ray as well I’m not sure. We have a “Learn to Draw” tutorial, a “Dumpling Shuffle” game, “Learn the Panda Dance” (4:28), a dance video with Hihat that introduces you to the Panda Dance (I sat in awe of this video for a good two minutes before I had to shut it off), “Do You Kung Fu?” introduces you to the various methods of Kung Fu used in the film as well as each of their origins. “Inside the Chinese Zodiac” shows you the many signs that you could be, with a table option for the years 1996 through 2007 (clicking on each one of the years will provide a list of other years that it covers as well, however. So if you’re like me and are nowhere near represented on the list, you can still figure out which one you are). “Animals of Kung Fu Panda” (6:15) is a short piece on the animals in the film and finally “What Fighting Style are You?” is a little quiz that wraps up the standard extras on the disc (all of which are in 1080i/p).
For the Blu-ray bonuses we have some BD-Live “fun features” (i.e., nothing adults would really care about), as well as an on-screen trivia track and what may be the best extra on the set: “The Animator’s Corner: Storyboards and Interviews.” This piece plays throughout the entire film and really acts as a second commentary, only with video. It really delves into the production of the film more and while Jack Black often just stands around saying “yeah” and “that’s cool” to a lot of what the directors are talking about, it’s nice he was at least on hand to do these extras.
Overall the Blu-ray edition is absolutely fantastic. Packed with extras and an A/V transfer that is jaw-dropping, Kung Fu Panda comes Highly Recommended.
Kung Fu Panda is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.