Capturing the style and comedic value of a multitude of Kung Fu films from China, especially the dodgy ones, Kung Fu Panda is a wonderfully funny, action packed CGI film from Dreamworks, who are no doubt looking for a new franchise to build upon given the fact that the Shrek films have begun to wane in popularity and quality.
Jack Black voices Po, a fat, awkward and klutzy panda, who desires nothing more than to meet his heroes, the Furious Five. The Furious Five, representing different martial arts styles, are Tigress (voice of Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross) , Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen) & Snake (Lucy Liu), and all are vying to become the much vaunted Dragon Warrior, the mystical, powerful Kung Fu warrior with enormous power and skill, who will protect the Valley of Peace for generations. Sounds hard, but you’d be surprised at just how simple the premise is. Leading the Furious Five, and charged with the training of Po to become the Dragon Warrior when he accidentally (there are no accidents!) stumbles into a ceremony to determine the one who will become the vaunted Kung Fu master, is Master Shifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman, who doesn’t believe Po can stand up to the challenge.
And when arch-nemeis Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes from his prison, to wreak havoc upon the land and claim the Dragon Warrior title for himself, Po must learn the ways of Kung Fu, and learn them quickly.
Kung Fu Panda is your classic fish out of water story, in fact, the film is so convoluted with themes we’ve seen before you can almost hear the oncoming dialogue before it’s been delivered. This is perhaps the biggest disappointment with Kung Fu Panda, is that the basic plot is a carbon copy of other films. The idiotic/misunderstood/likeable-but-clueless central character, made to become something he’s not good at, eventually triumphs to save the day and become the hero. You have your classic group of professionals who see the newcomer as something to despise, and they try to get rid of him, but end up appreciating his skill and becoming his friends. You have your traditional arch villain, powerful and vengeful, who has a giant chip on his shoulder that seems impossible to knock off, until he encounters the wayward hero and engages in battle.
Yep, been done before, right? Right.
Where the film transcends it’s convoluted and much clichéd storyline is in it’s characters, and the voice cast doing justice to them. That, and the animation is among some of the best you’ll ever see: it’s utterly brilliant. Po, the Furious Five, Master Shifu, Tai Lung; all are perfectly performed by the voice cast, imbuing each character with emotion, sensitivity and humour. Jack Black is simply hilarious, and heartbreaking, as Po, the misunderstood panda who is at first destined to work in his fathers restaurant serving customers, and ends up being charged with the protection of the entire valley, something he’s come to regard as a little difficult. His vocal style, which I often find a little annoying, to be honest, suits the character extremely well. Hoffman also fares well, with his Master Shifu projecting the wise, somewhat discontented and emotionally distracted character brilliantly. The rest of the major cast fare a little worse, with the Furious Five being little more than glorified cameos for the cast involved. Most only get about three or four lines for the whole film, and it’s a real let-down for me that they didn’t get more time to shine.
Ian McShane is wonderfully powerful as the evil Tai Lung, his escape from the prison he’s held captive in is among the films true highlights, filled with action, drama and some amazing animation. There’s also a pitched battle between Tai Lung and The Furious Five on a rope bridge above a mountaintop, which is perhaps one of the most stunning fight sequences ever staged in an animated film: it even makes Princess Fiona’s despatchment of those pesky Robin Hood caricatures seem like a fight on Bold & The Beautiful. Po, himself struggling to come to terms with a position of power he didn’t really want, has a fair amount of dialogue with Master Shifu, and both Black and Hoffman play it to the hilt, filled with sardonic and sarcastic retorts and sly, subtle humor. It probably won’t fly with younger kids, who will more than likely be more interested in the pretty colors (and they are extremely pretty) but adults will love it.
There’s moments of punch-the-air joy scattered through this film, especially towards the end, with the fights, battles and cataclysmic destruction of public property only possible in a film where nothing is real. You find yourself cheering the Furious Five, cheering Master Shifu (even though he’s acted like a twat for most of the film) and cheering Po as he goes head to head with Tai Lung: there’s plenty of action to keep even the most attention deficient children amused. It kept me going, so that must mean something!
Kung Fu Panda isn’t the best animated film of 2008; that honor will still go to WALL-E, but what it is is one of the most stunningly animated, heart-in-the-right-place films of the last 12 months. It’s got action, comedy, decent morals and a story that, while plagiarized from other films to a certain extent, is good enough to hold up under scrutiny. It’s entertaining, endearing and ultimately, that’s what any good film should strive to be. Will no doubt become a regular staple at many homes with children, and is a ready-made repeat viewing treat that you’ll always find entertaining.