CATEGORIES Action, Animation, Comedy, Cannes, Theatrical Reviews, Festival Reports, Angelina Jolie, Reviews, Cinematical
Perhaps the best thing about Kung Fu Panda is that it's an action comedy that doesn't skimp on the action. Dreamworks Animation's latest effort may stick out a little on the Red Carpet at Cannes -- where it's screening out of competition -- but it's certainly a well-made kid's film that earns high points for how directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne clearly crafted and contemplated its look and feel with ambition and style. Anyone can make a computer-animated cartoon with fuzzy animals doing kung fu; you have to be at least a little inspired to make a computer-animated cartoon featuring fuzzy animals doing kung fu in widescreen Cinemascope. ...
Kung Fu Panda opens with a rousing, stylish action sequence, as a narrator (Jack Black, in full-on Tenacious D exposition mode) explains how "Legend tells of a legendary kung fu warrior whose kung fu skills were legendary. ..." But then, the heroic panda we've seen unleashing paws of power on the big screen ... wakes up; it was just a dream. Then Po the panda (Black), whose dreams of kung fu glory are the counterpoint to his unsatisfying life, gets ready for his day of helping his father Mr. Ping (James Wong) sell noodles to the people of the Valley of Peace.
Meanwhile, in the temple on the hill, the handful of trained warriors known as the "Furious Five" who've trained under by Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) waits anxiously. One of them will be named by temple master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) as the prophesied Dragon Warrior who will save the valley from the threat of Shifu's ex-student Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Tai Lung, denied the secret of the Dragon Scroll that would have made him the Dragon Warrior years ago, went on a rampage of rage after his rejection; he's in captivity, but his return has been prophesied as well. As the crowd gathers to see who Oogway will name as the Dragon Warrior, Po abandons his post at the noodle cart, drags himself up to the temple and sneaks in. Of course, when the Dragon Master is named, it's not Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) or Mantis (Seth Rogen) who is chosen from the ranks of the Furious Five, but instead portly, poky Po. ...
No one can believe Po's the Dragon Warrior -- not even Po himself; as Mr. Ping points out, "We're noodle people, Po; broth runs in our veins. ..." But, as you'd expect, Po has hidden strengths and a good heart, and he comes to believe in himself through the support of his friends and all of that, that in this case meaning fairly standard-issue kid-movie underdog story stuff. Kung Fu Panda isn't trying to re-invent any wheels here, though; instead, it tries, and succeeds, to put a nice spin on familiar kid-flick moments. Po is the sort of character -- slack, silly, gentle but goofy -- that Black can do in his sleep, so it's a nice surprise that never happens here; Black keeps Po warm and winning even in the most thinly-written moments. Hoffman's Shifu, a tiny-but-towering red panda martial arts master mammal, gets some nice line readings as well, and McShane bites into his dialogue until you can practically hear the juice running down his chin. As for the Five, they're not given much to say; I had to check the credits to see who voiced Mantis, for example, as almost no sense of performance or personality came through in the few lines the character had.
The fight sequences in Kung Fu Panda are actually impressive -- taking advantage of the fantastic freedom of animation while also being stylized and character-driven; supervising animator and storyboard artist Rudolphe Gunoden is credited as the kung fu choreographer, and his work's inspired, from little touches like anatomically informed fighting styles for all the animals in the film to big moments like a sequence where the Furious Five take on Tai Lung on a rickety, precarious rope bridge or when Shifu finally hits on the secret of how to best bring out Po's kung fu skills.
Of course, I may be a little inclined to have liked Kung Fu Panda as it made for a bit of a break; my Cannes viewing before this morning's Kung Fu Panda screening included two stabbings, a riot, several acts of sexual aggression, a few beatings, assault with a deadly weapon, family tension, grinding poverty and child endangerment. (That's not the breakdown for the films before Kung Fu Panda, just to clarify; that's the breakdown for the film before Kung Fu Panda.) But I think Kung Fu Panda will play pretty well in a less rarefied environment, too; I predict kids leaving the theatre will be arguing about who they get to be when playing out in the yard later, throwing kung fu blows and putting up blocks in the back of the minivan all the way home. Kung Fu Panda may be on the higher edge of the middle rank of computer-animated films, but it'll still provide your kids with a fairly respectable mix of action, amazement and amusement.