Every Panda Was Kung Fu Fighting

28-Jan-09 11:27 AM by
Filed under Reviews; 3 comments.

A good movie should appeal to all ages, and anyone who thinks they're "too old" for a popular film is more likely to be insecure about being caught seeing — and liking! — a "children's movie." Nonetheless, I didn't think last summer's Kung Fu Panda was original or appealing enough to warrant my box office dollars. But the recommendations of friends encouraged me to catch this animated hit on DVD, am I am glad to have heeded these senseis' advice.

The movie's titular panda, Po, is the sort of character you'd expect to be played by Jack Black, who provides the voice: an overweight good-for-nothing who spends his days dreaming of escape, without wanting to do any of the work that would elevate him from the mundane. But fate is a funny thing, and Po soon finds himself a student in the temple of the patient turtle, Master Oogway, and his pupil, the firefox Master Shifu, who is training The Furious Five. Each of the five represent a different animal and art form: tigress, mantis, monkey, viper, and crane. This manifestation is not an original idea; the forgettable video game T'ai Fu demonstrated much of the same culture and plot as this film, and it's no coincidence that both were developed by Dreamworks. But unlike that 1999 PlayStation game, Kung Fu Panda has both style and substance in one memorable package.

The movie makes this mark predominantly through its cast members, the most interesting of which is Master Shifu, played by Dustin Hoffman. It is Shifu, not Po, who faces the greatest challenge, as not only must Shifu confront the external force of the power-hungry leopard Tai Lung, but he must also struggle with his own fears and failures. He is a tragic character akin to Obi-Wan: having raised a young boy of questionable parentage to be a hero, only to have him fall to the dark side, he now must train a young man of similarly unknown background to undo his past sins. As in such martial arts films as The Karate Kid, The Forbidden Kingdom, and The Hunted, the hero must be trained in an unrealistically short time to face the greatest evil. Yes, it's cliché and predictable — but that doesn't stop Kung Fu Panda from being a ton of fun.

My two favorite scenes both feature Master Shifu. The first is a harmless training exercise in which he and Po use chopsticks to battle over their dinner's last dumpling. It's a safe example in which we see that Shifu has grown from a cynical master to a proud parent, and that Po has grown in skill and maturity as well. This sets the stage for a later battle between Shifu and his former disciple, a fast and fierce engagement in which we can sense that something terrible is at stake. It's a great dichotomy that showcases the versatility of the character's and the film's tones — especially compared to the final battle, which requires the gaijin rely on dumb luck to overcome the enemy.

The supporting cast of the Furious Five is voiced by Jackie Chan (The Forbidden Kingdom), David Cross (Arrested Development), Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, and Lucy Liu. It's almost a shame such a talented cast was hired for an action movie, as their characters spend more time moving than talking.

This cadre in its entirety gets as much screen time as their singular villain, Tai Lung. The impossible feats he performs demonstrates him to be a complete master of his environment and his own body — an inner and outer oneness. Even if he is a completely fabricated (and evil) character, I still found myself admiring the control that comes with martial arts.

Dreamworks demonstrates a similar mastery of computer animation with this film. I don't know whether or not to mourn the passing of traditional, hand-drawn animation, but Kung Fu Panda is evidence that movies of this style must no longer be specified to be "CGI" or "computer animated", as was once the case with the rare and groundbreaking Pixar films. But the DVD has some fun live-action extras, including a demonstration of how a master chef makes noodles, and instructions on how to use chopsticks (a skill that defies me to this day!).

Kung Fu Panda is an enjoyable exercise in witty dialogue and frenetic action. Fan of action comedy in the style of Jackie Chan will berate themselves for missing this animated entry.

Hung Ogre

30-May-07 4:40 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 1 comment.

I made my first trip to a "regular" (non-drive-in, non-IMAX) theater this weekend to see Shrek the Third. I'd seen each of the first two films only once (in English, anyway — don't ask) and was surprised at how well the second movie lived up to the standard of its predecessor. I thought the balance of kiddie and adult humor that creatively employed a variety of pop culture references created an attractive package for all audiences.

I guess Dreamworks was pushing their luck hoping for a three-peat. Oddly, I had exactly the opposite interpretation as David Ansen, who wrote, "It's a movie at war with itself: a kiddie movie that doesn't really want to be one." Though there were more than enough laughable moments for me to call this an enjoyable film, I felt it fell short of the Shrek and Shrek 2 by lacking a certain sophistication to its humor and a significance to its plot elements. For examples: in Shrek 2, Puss in Boots was introduced as a major character, and the connection between Prince Charming and the fairy godmother was developed slowly and naturally. In Shrek the Third, the character Merlin is almost trivial, as is the swapping of Puss and Donkey's bodies. And we get the gist of the plot far too soon, leaving no surprises for later.

But regardless of any story quibbles, Shrek the Third is a visual triumph. I've previously commented that CGI has become so commonplace that it's no longer a gimmick. That's not to say its quality is on par with hand-drawn animation; the two styles are distinctly unique, and I lament that the latter is falling by the wayside. But the level of detail possible in CGI is simply astounding. There were times I was marvelling not necessarily at the main action, but at Artie's hair, or Rapunzel's eyes. These minor elements don't add to the story, but they do make the the land of Far, Far Away seem not so distant.

Overall, an enjoyable film when taken on its own. Maybe films just don't stand up well to unplanned trilogies, as was the case with X-Men 3 and Terminator 3, both which fell far short of their earlier entries. Even earlier this month was Spider-Man 3, which was good but not great (though I hear Pirates 3 is better than its immediate predecessor). Leave it to Hollywood to try giving us too much of a good thing…

Nonetheless, if three films still isn't enough for you, fear not: our heroic party will be returning in a variety of formats. Look for the fourth film (possibly a prequel) in 2010 alongside a Puss spinoff, The Story of an Ogre Killer. And more immediately, the holiday special Shrek the Halls will be on TV this calendar year. You will believe donkeys can fly!