Directors: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Starring: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu
Running Time: 90 min.
*** (out of ****)
Kung Fu Panda is a fun and reasonably entertaining family film that can’t help but suffer a little from Post-WALL-E syndrome. While this was released into theaters nearly a month before Pixar’s masterwork I’m just getting around to it now and that timing isn’t exactly beneficial. In telling a simple story in a simple way and not aspiring to do much more this could be considered the cinematic animated equivalent of a pleasant walk in the park. It’s unfair to hold Dreamworks to the same standard as Pixar but taken on its own terms this is still the kind of movie that would have you leaving the theater telling your friends how “cute” it was. And you’d be right. That’s pretty much what it is. But there’s still some honor in executing a tried and true formula efficiently and in such a way that audiences of all ages can enjoy it.
For older kids and adults it really won’t be anything they haven’t seen before but I'm guessing small children will absolutely love it and likely beg for multiple viewings. In fact, they’ll probably like it much more than WALL-E because it movies at a brisker pace, is easier to understand and doesn’t contain jokes that will fly over their heads. In other words, they won’t be bored. But the more important newsworthy item coming out of this is that it took an animated film to give us one of Jack Black’s more restrained, intelligent performances.
Po (voiced by Black) is a Panda who works as a waiter at his father’s (James Hong) noodle restaurant and daydreams of becoming a martial arts hero, despite being rather lazy and out of shape. The old, wise Yoda-like turtle Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) has a vision that the vicious snow leopard Tia Lung (Ian McShane) will escape from prison to gain vengeance on his former master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and wreck havoc in the Valley of Peace. He must choose and anoint the Dragon Warrior to defeat him.
Despite having top candidates for the honor amongst the "Furious Five," comprised of Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (David Cross) and Crane (Lucy Liu), Oogway selects Po, the overweight Panda with no martial arts experience. The "Five" are none too happy about it, nor is Shifu who’s designated the thankless, near-impossible task of training him for his showdown with Tia Lung. At first all seems hopeless, but Shifu finds a way to unearth his true potential and prepare him for battle with the dangerous Tia Lung.
The film boats an impressive array of big-name actors providing voice over work, yet strangely it seems as if only a couple contribute anything of value. A big fuss was made about Angelina Jolie’s presence but it’s a completely useless part and hardly the co-headlining role commercials and print advertisements have made it out to be. The same could be said for the other four members of the "Furious Five" as well. With talent like Seth Rogen and David Cross on board you’d figure they’d be given much more to do. It doesn’t really hurt the film per se and the roles fill their necessary (if somewhat lackluster) function in the story but it’s obvious the studio was just seeing dollar signs and not thinking whether their vocal talent would add anything to the film. It’s the very definition of stunt casting.
Luckily, the two major roles of Po and his trainer Shifu are exceptionally cast with Black and Hoffman. Those worrying that the usually manic Jack Black providing a voice for an animated feature would conjure up images of nails on a chalkboard can rest easy. He invests Po with a low-key charm and easygoing nature making him impossible to not root for. Of course you could joke that all of Black’s roles are cartoonish in nature so this would seem right up his alley, but he’s surprisingly restrained in this and while his voice is recognizable, it’s never a distraction. Hoffman’s voice is a little less recognizable (I didn’t even know it was him until after checking the credits), but he brings an authoritative but ultimately very caring dimension to Shifu. McShane’s voice is appropriately menacing for Tia Lung, even if this is your typical animated villain interchangeable with virtually any Disney film from the past 30 years.
Kung Fu Panda’s greatest strength is the writing as screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger know what boxes to check and do so in an effective, workmanlike fashion. You have an outcast with a dream who must dig down deep inside himself to overcome impossible odds and the mentoring figure who helps him do it. We know how it starts, how it develops and where it ends up, although at a very quick 90 minutes it seems to get there before you can blink. Honestly, this movie felt like it was no longer than five minutes, which is probably a compliment.
The animation is just fine. Nothing special, but it doesn’t need to be because the film’s bread is buttered with the story and likable protagonist. I can’t say I was at all emotionally involved in what happened to him since the set-up is so standard but I was smiling the entire way through. If there’s a weak link it’s the action scenes, which are so fast-paced it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s going on. It’s also hard to be concerned about the safety of Po considering no one in the film seems capable of even being hurt.
Have I made the movie sound unexciting enough for you? It’s actually a lot fun but if you go into expecting anything more than that you’re in for a letdown. I wish I could tell you about all the groundbreaking revelations Kung Fu Panda provided but the truth is that it’s good in the most average, common way possible. It’s proof that sometimes a really good movie can be less interesting than a bad one when it follows a predictable pattern we’ve seen many times before. I’d much rather watch a movie with more ambition that tries something different and fails than this, but since it’s frequently entertaining and hardly missteps it earns a passing grade. The film will be Oscar nominated for Best Animated Feature not because it’s so great but because there are only three slots to fill in that inane category. It will also lose.
I’m not surprised the movie raked in as much money as it did because it caters to its target audience really well and packs enough extra in to satisfy everyone else. Yet when it ended I couldn’t help thinking it could have been much better. Or even more perplexingly, maybe it couldn’t have been. Maybe this really is as good as was possible and we’re just spoiled. If that’s the case then there’s cause for celebration. It means we’ve come so far in animated family entertainment that calling Kung Fu Panda merely “fun” could almost be considered a backhanded compliment.