It’s been interesting to watch the youth-ification of martial arts. Sure, kids have always been the major market when it comes to karate lessons, video games, and other media oriented kung foolishness, but it seems slightly surreal that the under 10 set would be the primary demographic for such obviously adult aggression. Remember, for every lesson about loyalty and duty, there’s a series of roundhouse kicks and face-destroying punches provided. While it preaches an anti-antagonism stance, violence still sells these spectacles. It’s the same with the latest CGI effort from Dreamworks and Paramount. Entitled Kung Fu Panda, this candy coated compendium of cartoon idioms may look loveable, but it’s all about the butt kicking in the end.
Poor Po. He has a dream that, as a panda, he will probably never fulfill. Longing to imitate his heroes, the five masters of the main martial art styles (tiger, monkey, crane, mantis, and snake), he hopes to be a kung fu icon himself. Sadly, he seems stuck following in his father’s noodle vending footsteps. Then the Jade Temple announces the choosing of the newest Dragon Master, and Po is excited. He wants to see who gets the honor. In a bizarre turn of events, elder Oogway selects….our amiable overweight bear. This infuriates Shifu, teacher of the five masters. He must now prepare this pudgy ‘loser’ for the ultimate challenge - long exiled panther Tai Lung has escaped from prison, and is headed for a showdown with the newest handpicked hero.
If the Shaw Brothers had access to CGI and the post-modern voice talent, Kung Fu Panda would have definitely been part of their stable of wuxia epics. Glorious to look at and exhilarating to experience, this is the best that such genre-defying efforts have to offer. Far surpassing the pleasant but paltry visuals presented by such stale 3D showcases as Shrek and Ice Age, this combination of anime, action, and ancient Chinese scrollwork is captivating from the opening dream sequence. We also get clever character design, a true depth of field, and a phenomenal attention to detail. Then directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson up the Asian ante, meticulously recreating the carefully choreographed fight scenes that make martial arts movies so addictive.
Indeed, Kung Fu Panda is a feast for the fanboy as well as the eyes. Immerse yourself long enough in these films and you start to see patterns - folklore forged into a viable entertainment. The Shaws, more than any other studio, followed these formulas to the letter. While no one expects authenticity from what is, by all accounts, a kiddie film, Panda provides enough archetypes to stand solidly alongside the category’s very best. Even better, it delves deep into the varying kung fu formats, allowing the characters named after certain fighting styles to effortlessly illustrate said forms. This means monkey boxes the way a student of said discipline would. The same applies to all the others, creating a real sense of respect and recognizability within the differing skill sets.
Of course, there are jokes for the wee ones as well. Lots of Kung Fu Panda‘s humor is of the physical shtick/fat guy variety. Po falls down a lot, and his girth causes him problems all along the way. There are gags about food, eating, and our hero’s uncontrollable appetite. When he’s not gorging on snacks, he’s falling down long flights of stairs. The standard issue crudities are also available (a blow to the crotch offers the exclamation “My tenders!”) with, luckily, none of the random pop culture referencing. Indeed, one of the best things about this movie is its desire to avoid type to traverse its own eclectic territory.
Speaking of the talent involved, all the voice work done on behalf of Kung Fu Panda is excellent. Jack Black does little more than channel his own chaotic yet huggable personality, and it works wonderfully. He’s very endearing as the portly Po. Equally amazing is Dustin Hoffman, refusing to fall into some manner of caricature. Instead, he makes Master Shifu appear real and authentic. Of the five main fighters, Angelina Jolie gets the most screen time as Tigress, though her character is quite irresponsible at times. Jackie Chan may be barely recognizable as Monkey (as is Seth Rogen as the miniature Mantis), but David Cross does a great job as Crane. His slightly sarcastic delivery plays perfectly to the post-adolescent crowd.
Yet the most memorable thing about Kung Fu Panda is its sumptuous look. It’s the main reason why the Shaws would gladly call it there own. There is a lavish quality to the illustrations, a real artistic aura that grows richer and more refined as the film moves along. The landscapes are breathtaking, the fights lightning quick without being too busy. Obsorne and Stevenson even deliver a memorable melee of their own, as when Po and Shifu fight, chopsticks in hand, over a plate of dumplings. It’s the kind of brawny ballet the genre is known for, and why Kung Fu Panda fits within it perfectly.
Certainly there is little drama in whether Po will defeat the evil Tai Lung, and the message about finding the truth outside the obvious is unsatisfactory in its blatancy. Yet Black and company are having so much fun, refusing to fall into self-parody or spoof, that we instantly forgive these minor flaws. In fact, by the time of the final send off, we happily celebrate the entire storyline. Kung Fu Panda is probably the biggest surprise of this already above-average Summer season. CGI loves to cannibalize itself in ways that undermine the inherent joy in the artform. This is the kind of film that completely reinvigorates your faith in the format.