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.
One thing you’ll undoubtedly notice with this one on the shelves is that it comes bundled with a second disc, Secrets of the Furious Five (24:34) that follows the film in continuity and features some of the original voice actors from the film reprising their roles. The basic premise of the film is Po is telling a group of rowdy rabbits who want to learn Kung Fu about the history of the Furious Five. Their origins are told in a similar animation style to the opening of Kung Fu Panda, although it appears to be a bit more on the cheap side. Truth be told this piece isn’t terribly interesting and the Furious Five have very dull and boring origin stories. Still, for a freebie it isn’t bad, though why they had to include in a completely separate DVD package, I don’t know. Seems like a bit of a waste, as both discs contain similar content, so putting them in one case would have made a bit more sense…but oh well. As is the film comes with a few inserts advertising HP products and an upcoming Nickelodeon show, while the Furious Five come with nothing inside. Both discs feature the same menu structure, which is based off of the stylized end credits for the film.
Video for both releases is what you’ve come to expect from modern animation, although in the case of Kung Fu Panda the animation is quite compressed at times, particularly during the old peach tree sequence, where the blossoms twirl in the air causing an influx of compression artifacts to dance around with them. It’s a rather ugly sequence with all of the compression mixed in with it, but I’m sure the Blu-ray edition isn’t quite so ugly at this particular bit. Other than that, however, the film looks pretty solid, with great detail levels and vibrant colors to pop off the screen. As can be expected the 5.1 mixes for both films are also quite enjoyable, although the film has an obvious edge over the animated short as it is constantly sending stuff to the surrounds, whether it be fireworks, a rustling wind or some other stray sound effect that speeds around the room. Overall the technical presentations for both the film and the short are fine.
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, unless you have a DVD-ROM in which case there are printable items and weblinks.
For Furious Five our extras are decidedly less interesting and much more of the kiddy nature. Under the “Po’s Power Play” section we have a “Learn to Draw” tutorial, a “Dumpling Shuffle” game and a “Pandamonium Activity Kit” which are some more DVD-ROM goodies. Under “The Land of The Panda” we have “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 disc.
Overall the two discs are certainly entertaining, although I would only concern myself with the Kung Fu Panda disc. I wouldn’t be too worried if you can pick up the Furious Five disc or not since there isn’t a whole lot of extra content on it to peruse and the main draw itself is a bit on the weak side. Recommended.
Kung Fu Panda is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.