Kung Fu Panda [Blu-Ray]
Director : Mark Osborne & John Stevenson
Screenplay : Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger (story by Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2008
I’ve never been particularly impressed with celebrity actors lending their voices to animated films. It just seems so unnecessary. After all, the art of animation survived for decades relying on mostly unknown actors whose forte was their vocal abilities, and their lack of star presence made it that much easier for me to sink into the animated fantasy world in which they brought their characters to life. Now, animated films are sold largely on the backs of above-the-title talent who bring plenty of name recognition, but usually little in the way of improved characterization. The trend arguably started with Disney’s stunt casting of Robin Williams to voice the genie in Aladdin (1992), which was certainly a smart move given the comedian’s penchant for impersonations and wild improvisation. However, now every animated film has to be packaged with a plethora of Hollywood stars, who lend their names to the marketing blitz, but don’t necessarily make a significant impact on the film itself.
Having said all that, I will say that casting Jack Black as a roly-poly panda with kung fu delusions of grandeur in Kung Fu Panda was a brilliant move because the quality of his work has a genuine effect on the film. Perhaps it is because I have spent so much time listening to Tenacious D, but Black’s immediately recognizable voice and barely-controlled gusto ratchets Kung Fu Panda to another level in terms of both sheer pleasure and a humorous distanciation that is unavoidable when an irrepressibly vulgar spirit like Black’s is molded to fit children’s entertainment (this is precisely why School of Rock was so much better than it should have been).
Kung Fu Panda takes place in a fantasy-land version of ancient China in which all the characters are animals, which is an amusing literalization of the manner in which different styles of kung fu are based on animal movements (this also results in some oddly unexplained scenarios, such as a goose playing father to a panda). Thus, the mythical “Furious Five,” a group of stellar kung fu warriors, are each actual animals: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). The story centers on Po (Black), a genial panda bear who works in a noodle shop and dreams of being a mighty warrior, although his incessant laziness and proclivity for eating everything within his reach tend to keep those dreams from becoming a reality.
However, when a much-feared warrior named Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes from prison, Po is (seemingly accidentally) declared to be the long-awaited “Dragon Warrior” whose destiny is to defeat the arch villain. Po’s training is put in the hands of the kung fu master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a pint-sized red panda with a Fu Manchu moustache who has trained the Furious Five and also has a personal connection to Tai Lung. Shifu is understandably perplexed that this ridiculous panda is the one who has been prophesized to defeat the most feared of warriors, and he at first tries to get Po to quit with his demanding training regimen. However, he finds that Po is nothing if not resilient (and he can certainly take a beating), so maybe there’s something to him after all.
Directors Mike Osborne and John Stevenson clearly want Kung Fu Panda to be both a fish-out-water comedy and a dazzling display of martial arts action, and one of the movie’s genuine pleasures is the way they combine the two. Granted, watching CGI-animated animals pulling off amazing moves will never replicate the giddy joys of seeing Jackie Chan or Tony Jaa doing the real thing on film, but it’s fun to watch nonetheless (it also helps that the animators have found a nice balance between photorealism and caricature to give the film a distinctive look). Some of the film’s toying with generic conventions, such as extreme slow motion, comes off as a bit obvious and ham-handed, but can you really blame them for trying?
And, whenever the movie seems like it might be getting too prosaic, it gets an uplift from Jack Black, who dials down his tenacious anarchy to kid-friendly levels without selling out his energy and wanton enthusiasm for all things ridiculous; some of the film’s best moments are when Po expresses his ardor for the kung fu moves that have just laid him to waste. Some of the credit for his performance also needs to go to the animators, who are able to evoke Black’s devilish facial mannerisms while keeping Po cute and cuddly. Of course, the movie has to eventually wind its way to a standard-issue “believe in yourself” message, but it’s delivered with just enough self-effacing humor that it never comes across as overly cloying.
|Kung Fu Panda Blu-Ray|
|Subtitles||English, Spanish, Portuguese, French|
|Distributor||DreamWorks Animation SKG Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||November 9, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The artists behind Kung Fu Panda did a beautiful job of evoking intense colors throughout the film, and the 1080p high-definition image on this Blu-Ray disc presents them beautifully. From the highly mannered anime-style opening sequence, to the dark, bluish canyon of a prison in which Tai Lung is being held, to the earthy tones of the insides of various wooden buildings, the colors are rich and well saturated. The film is, of course, heavily loaded with visual detail, and the image allows us to absorb every waving strand of hair on the various animals. Because Kung Fu Panda is an action movie of sorts, the Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround soundtrack is given a pretty serious workout, with plenty of activity in the surround speakers and lots of movement across the front soundstage during the fight scenes.|
|The supplements are broadly organized into four sections. |
The first section, “Inside Kung Fu Panda,” focuses primarily on behind-the-scenes information for adults who are interested in how the film was made. There is an audio commentary by directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, as well as “The Animators’ Corner,” which is a picture-in-picture commentary track featuring interviews with and clips of many of the behind-the-scenes artists involved in the making the film. Also in this section is a trivia track and several featurettes, including “Meet the Cast” (14 min.), which includes interviews with Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Ian McShane, and Michael Clarke Duncan; “Pushing the Boundaries” (7 min.), which focuses on the technologies involved in bringing the computer-generated images to life (who would have thought that characters with fur who also wear clothes would pose such a challenge?); and “Conservation International: Help Save Wild Pandas,” a two-minute infomercial in which Jack Black humorously implores us to help save wild pandas.
The next section, “Po’s Power Play,” contains games and featurettes aimed squarely at kids. In the “Dragon Warrior Training Academy” game you use the remote control to play Po as he works his way through the various training sessions, and in “Dumpling Shuffle” you try to keep track of a dumpling hidden beneath a moving bowl. Finally, there is a “Learn to Draw” featurette that shows you step-by-step how to draw the characters in the film.
The “Sounds and Moves of Kung Fu Panda” section opens with the four-minute “Sound Design” featurette, which includes an interview with Oscar-winning sound designer Ethan Van der Ryn. You also get the Cee-Lo music video for “Kung Fu Fighting”; the “Learn the Panda Dance” featurette in which Hi-Hat and a group of kids teaches you a rather complicated set of dance moves to go with the song; and “Do You Kung Fu?,” a 24-minute featurette that gives you the basics of six kung fu fighting styles.
The last section, “Land of Panda,” starts with “Mr. Ping’s Noodle House,” a five-minute featurette in which the Food Network’s Alton Brown narrates while the executive chef at the Mr. Chow restaurant in Beverly Hills makes noodles from scratch. This is followed by the self-explanatory three-minute featurette “How to Use Chopsticks.” “Inside the Chinese Zodiac” allows you to find out which animal is inside you by selecting the year in which you were born, while “Animals of Kung Fu Panda” explores the various animals that inspired the film’s kung fu fighting styles. After that, you can take a quiz to find out “What Fighting Style Are You?” The disc is rounded out with the “DreamWorks Animation Video Jukebox,” which includes musical sequences from DreamWorks’ most popular animated films, and BD Live content.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © DreamWorks Animation SKG Home Entertainment