Friday, June 6, 2008

From the Archive: "Kung Fu Panda" Film Review

Film Rating: A

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “Kung Fu Panda.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Kung Fu Panda”
Originally published June 6th, 2008

Pandas are the single most awesome creature on the face of the planet; the black/white color scheme combined with their mammoth-sized teeth that can crush bamboo make them the most fun animal to visit at the zoo.  Kung Fu is also awesome; who doesn’t like watching fight scenes from movies with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, etc.  Combining Pandas with Kung Fu seems like an obvious concept to me, but its never been done before.  Until now.  The title alone is cool; just say it to yourself…Kung Fu Panda…that’s an awesome title.  But does the movie live up to the concept?

Simple answer: yes.  A really big ‘yes.’

I’m an animation junkie; I love watching old Disney movies over and over, and whenever Pixar releases a new movie, you can bet I’ll be there opening day.  But other than Pixar, I’m less than impressed (to put it lightly) with the state of animation today.  There’s a horrible animated movie coming out every few weeks, and one of the main offenders is DreamWorks animation.  Oh boy do I hate DreamWorks animation.  The company’s only good movie is the original Shrek; the rest are awful.  Shrek 2 and 3, Over the Hedge, Madagascar, etc.  The main problem is a lack of creativity, too much emphasis on an all-star voice cast, and too many pop culture references.  They don’t understand what animation is all about.

Well I don’t know what happened or who got put in charge, but Kung Fu Panda, which is the studio’s newest film, takes all their other films, roles them into a ball and throws it across the room.  As an animation junkie, Kung Fu Panda was one of the most entertaining times I’ve had at the movies all year.  It has every element a good animated movie needs, the elements established by Walt Disney 70 years ago.

Po the Panda works in his father’s (his father is a bird, which is a sort of subtle running gag) noodle restaurant, but his real passion is Kung Fu.  One day, the Kung Fu master in the village Po lives in, Shifu, learns that the evil tiger, Tai Lung is going to escape from prison and that they must find the legendary “dragon warrior” in order to stop him.  During the ceremony when the dragon warrior will be discovered, Po drops in from the sky (he’s attempting to get into the ceremony because he arrived late) and is accidentally chosen as the dragon warrior.

I said this movie has every element that goes into making a great animated film, and it’s very true.  One thing every great family film needs is a protagonist we can all root for, and Po is the epitome of this kind of character.  Po is very loveable; he’s lazy about things he dislikes (noodles, waiting tables) but very enthusiastic for that which he loves (kung fu, eating, friends, etc.)  He’s a nice guy, and would never think of being mean to anyone.  He’s loveable, and a hero we love to root for.  Jack Black voices the character, but it’s hard to tell.  Unlike his live action performances, where Black screams and jumps around like a madman, he shows plenty of restraint in this voice role and breaths great life into Po.

So the film has a great protagonist, but that’s not all a great animated movie needs.  The plot, which I described above, is simple; very simple, and extremely familiar too.  Plot-wise, the film breaks no new ground, but the film executes its plot in such a fresh and creative way that the film feels very original.  The film’s message, that there’s a hero inside all of us, is one of the oldest and most used family-film messages, but they drive it home particularly well here.

Few animated films today tie their plots and subplots together as well as Kung Fu Panda; small elements, such as the secret ingredient in Po’s dad’s noodle soup, seem inconsequential at first, but come together at the end to drive the message home.  It’s really cool, in the end, to see everything tie together to create an amazingly satisfying conclusion.  There haven’t been very many live action films this year that have put together such a great story.  It never insults your intelligence as an adult, and is plenty simplistic for kids.  Masterful, to say the least.

A great supporting cast is also essential to telling an animated story well, and Kung Fu Panda has no shortage of great characters.  Shifu, the Kung Fu master is wise and gruff, but lightens up over time.  He is voiced by Dustin Hoffman, who perfectly fits the part.  His five students, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan himself, though he doesn’t have any lines that I can remember…), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Crane (David Cross) are voiced well and are great side-characters, who all change as the story develops.  That’s something I really love about this movie; Po isn’t the only one to go on a journey of character; all the character’s become better for the experience.

What else does a great animated film need…well, stellar animation, obviously.  Animated in an aspect ratio of 2.4:1, the film has 100 times the visual flair of every other DreamWorks animated film so far.  Each shot is a thing of beauty; the landscapes are lush and detailed, but never become too realistic; this film exists in a world similar to ours, but different too.  The animals are the same way; they closely resemble their real life counterparts, but are never too realistic.  Animation should never aim to be too realistic, and Kung Fu Panda follows this guideline.  Animation should draw the viewer into a fantastical world and immerse the viewer in that world so much that they forget they are watching animation; Kung Fu Panda succeeds in this.

 With a title like “Kung Fu Panda,” you’d naturally assume that there is plenty of fighting in the film, and there is.  In the tradition of classic kung fu movies, the action is heavily stylized and totally awesome.  Every fight is ridiculously cool…animated or not, some of these scenes are some of the best fight scenes I’ve ever watched.  The scene where Tai Lung escapes from prison is a mind-blowing work of animation, and the fight on a bridge between the five warriors and Tai Lung is awesomeness-overload.

In family/animated-film tradition, there’s plenty of humor sprinkled into the film.  Unlike other DreamWorks animated films, none of the humor resorts to pop culture references.  The humor derives from the plot and characters, and stays within the established universe, which is exactly how it should be.  There’s some really clever jokes, as well as some great sight gags, and never any gross out humor. 

Lastly, Hanz Zimmer, assisted by John Powell, turns in one of the best musical scores of the year.  It has a distinctly Chinese feel that breathes extra life into the action. 

All the elements come together to form an animated film that can only be described as classic.  The movie has lots of heart, and the story and characters are enthralling.  The action is exciting, and the animation is beautiful.  This is a perfect animated film, perfectly paced at a brisk but extremely enjoyable 90 minutes.  This is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen all year, and ranks among the best films released so far this year.  I won’t be surprised if this movie ends up on my year-end top ten list.  As an animation junkie, this movie was a slice of heaven.  Take the kids and rush to the theater; this movie is awesome.

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