KUNG FU PANDA is a not-so-little animated film from DreamWorks that is actually kinda “mystical and kung fu-ey.” It could have been a one-joke picture (as I feared from the early trailers), or another film filled with modern, hip jokes & references (like SHREK or A SHARK’S TALE – entertaining though they may have been). Instead, the writers and directors of this project, Jonathon Aibel & Glen Berger (KING OF THE HILL) and Mark Osborne (SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS) & John Stevenson (art dept. on SHREK 2, MADAGASCAR), respectively, have a sincere understanding and fondness of Chinese kung fu films of yesteryear. The result is a film that is cute and entertaining for youngsters, but also serves up a nice helping of fun and nostalgia for us older folk, especially those who really understand and feel all warm & squishy about the butt-kicking martial arts genre. And if you’re paying attention at all, you can see several parallels to the last 3 STAR WARS films. Frankly, it handles those related themes better – certainly more entertainingly.
KUNG FU PANDA’a characters were nicely drawn as well (and no, I don’t mean as cartoons). No one was merely a background computer image. Voice casting was solid, with a slew of well known actors pitching in like Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Wayne Knight, Michael Clarke Duncan, Lucy Liu, and a fellow I mention below from Hong Kong.
I was particularly taken by Randall Duk Kim (YEAR OF THE FISH, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA) as Oogway, the head Kung Fu Master, and James Hong (BALLS OF FURY, MULAN) as the Panda’s father, Mr. Ping. Throughout most the film I was wondering how on earth Mr. Ping could be Po’s father and at one point, just when we the audience thought he was going to make that big explanation, he turned the tables us, essentially saying ‘nope, you ain’t never gonna get to find out.’ A great teasing moment. Then there are nice lines like, “One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to read more into KUNG FU PANDA than is there. After all, let’s face it, the Chinese martial arts genre has never honestly been accused of great depth. Still, this animated film makes the effort to embody & honor the spirit of the genre with which it lovingly plays. And it looks like a lot of folks are getting the intent of the filmmakers. Thus far it has pulled in a stellar $203,500,614 in the nearly six weeks it’s been out. Not bad for a “cartoon.”
Still, KUNG FU PANDA is not quite a masterpiece. A few of the jokes fall flat, and some of Jack Black’s (KING KONG) banter as the Panda, Po, didn’t do much for me. I’ve also heard some say that its story is derivative. This may well be, but in my opinion that should be considered more of a compliment than a criticism. The elements within it mirror just about every self-respecting kung fu film out there. Just ask Hong Kong martial arts film mega-icon Jackie Chan. He knows. And he found the project interesting enough to lend his voice to it in a co-starring roll. He was Monkey, one of the loyal Kung Fu students.
Now, Mr. Chan was also in another martial arts film released domestically this year. That one was a live-action venture titled FORBBIDEN KINGDOM. It didn’t quite pack ‘em into the theaters like PANDA has, but it’s done decent business. FORBIDDEN KINGDOM has pulled in $52,075,270 domestically – a somewhat mild tally when compared to KUNG FU PANDA’s $200,000,000+.
There are probably a few reasons why FORBIDDEN KINGDOM has done so much less than KUNG FU PANDA. For one thing, PANDA moves along much more briskly and it doesn’t spend much time getting bogged down in plot exposition as KINGDOM does. PANDA also sticks with the basic elements of the Kung Fu genre, while KINDOM jumps into the realm of ‘80’s fantasy films (though for some there does seem to be a pleasant element to that which leans toward the nostalgic). There are also complaints that some of the visuals (digitally enhanced stunts, etc.) and wirework are a bit cheesy. PANDA’s computer animation, on the other hand, is top notch, with a look and feel that can rival the great Pixar.
Then there is the complaint of the rather one-dimensional relationship between the leads in KINDOM. But again, KUNG FU PANDA gives us characters that are full of fun, each with there own type of draw. And the music score (and songs) used in PANDA work very well within its overall setting. John Powell (HANCOCK, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM) and Hans Zimmer (THE DARK NIGHT, THE RING) have teamed up to offer a melodic and action-packed set of music cues for the film which complement its Asian theme and martial arts genre.
Lastly, KUNG FU PANDA leaves young and older viewers alike with a solid message that should never suffer from being repeated – “the secret ingredient to success in anything in life is…you.” It’s a little tidbit of wisdom and positive thinking that we tend to forget sometimes.
KUNG FU PANDA (2008). Written by Jonathon Aibel and Glenn Berger. Story by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris. Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne. Cast: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Dustin Hoffman, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen, Ian McShane, Randall Duk Kim, Michael Clarke Duncan, Dan Fogler, James Hong. MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of martial arts action.