Kung Fu Panda is a familiar story that has been heard many times before. Po is a panda bear that dreams of being a great kung fu fighter. He idolizes The Furious Five, a group of kung fu fighters who protect the local village from all forms of evil. Po has all their action figures and posters of the group hang on his walls, but while his dreams are full of kung fu heroics, his life is actually quite boring. He works with his father in a noodle shop. While his father, a goose, is perfectly content living a life making the best noodle soup in the land, Po wants more. This dream will become a reality when the legendary master Oogway has a vision that the evil Tai Lung will return to seek vengeance against the kung fu master Shifu.
While he seems an unlikely hero, Oogway determines it is Po who will become the Dragon Warrior, the only hope for defeating Tai Lung and saving the village. This is not anticipated and Master Shifu does everything he can to discourage Po from continuing his training. The best of the Furious Five, the warrior Tigress, has been groomed for the mantle of Dragon Warrior and when she is passed over for the fat panda, Po finds his heroes offer little help when it comes to preparing for his upcoming battles. This sets in motion a story both funny and uplifting – if you are a young child.
The animation starts off in the style of classic anime, but we soon discover it is a dream sequence. When Po wakes up, things are traditionally animated, only slipping back into anime when battle sequences occur later in the film. The backgrounds and settings are beautifully animated but there is something strange about the characters. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it seems the characters are just off when it comes to the design. With such beautifully animated landscapes, the live action animation seems to never reach an acceptable level. I also find it weak that the entire village is almost nothing but pigs, bunnies and geese, in what appears to be a lazy animation effort. I understand the kung fu fighters were the only ones of their species in the village (tiger, mantis, viper, crane, monkey, and eventually a panda) but it still seems a lazy attempt to create a large village where all the background characters look the exact same.
My main problem with the movie is the voice work of Jack Black. Every time Po opens his mouth it’s not the fat panda I hear, it’s Jack Black. I don’t know if the script was written for his specific style of humor or if he was allowed to improvise much of his dialogue, but the character never seems real to me and that is a problem if you are expected to sympathize with Po. When the battles start in the second half of the film, it works much better, but the first half was almost ruined by Black’s voice work.
It is not all Jack Black’s fault that this movie did not reach me, although he is partially responsible. When Robin Williams took the genie in Aladdin and made him a crazy, hyperactive version of himself, it still worked. You were listening to Robin Williams, and you knew it was Robin Williams, but it was Robin Williams as the genie. I can’t get past the fact that I am listening to Jack Black playing a version of Jack Black in this movie. The fault of this lies in the script. It never reaches higher than easy jokes and simple visual gags. In the days of Pixar, and even smart pop culture movies like DreamWorks own Shrek, this film never comes close to the bar of creativity and originality those movies set.
The rest of the voice actors do not face this same criticism. Angelina Jolie is perfect in her role as the insolent, brave warrior Tigress, passed by when Oogway chooses Po. Randall Duk Kim is brilliant as Oogway as well, bringing a very humorous characterization to the wise old turtle. Ian McShane, Seth Rogan, David Cross and Lucy Liu are all solid in their minor roles as well. Surprisingly, Jackie Chan is not distracting with his voice work as Monkey, and Chan usually annoys me every time he opens his mouth. I save the best for last. Dustin Hoffman is brilliant as the Master Shifu, annoyed, angry and weary all at once. It is said Hoffman was not sure he would take the role until he realized Shifu was, at heart, a little prick. Then he signed on without any reservations. He is the best voice actor in the movie and rules every scene he voices.
As a movie catering towards children, I question some of the decisions made in the storyline itself. Master Shifu figures out early that Po, despite his enthusiasm, is a horrible kung fu fighter. He almost gives up until the fateful day he discovers the one thing that makes Po the Dragon Warrior. I will go ahead and spoil that reveal here and let you know it is the fact that Po loves to eat. I mean, he’s a fat panda right? Well, if food is used as a training tool, Po can fight up to the level of the master himself. The lesson learned here is that it is okay if you are a fat kid who eats too much. Just use the food to help you achieve your other goals and desires. I think that is a dangerous and sloppy lesson to teach kids.
It has been asked recently if Kung Fu Panda would beat out the next Disney effort Wall-E both in financial box office totals as well as critical acclaim. I don’t think it will. Kung Fu Panda will not be a movie that has a long life span. For kids, it is the best flavor of the day. You have a fat panda kung fu fighter with funny lines which will make a perfect toy to keep kids occupied until the next big thing comes along. However, for animated films geared towards kids, the life expectancy is only as long as the next big attention grabber. For a movie to reach a wider audience and become a great animated film it needs to reach adults and I don’t think Kung Fu Panda attempts to reach that level during its entire running time.
The movie is a great summer film for the kids. It achieves everything you could want in a kid’s feature film, with the exception of the “eating disorders are good” storyline. It has quips and quotes that your kids will be saying for weeks and the movie will present you with lots of new toys they will be clamoring for immediately upon leaving the theater. As a solid animated feature for all ages, it fails. It is simplistic and exudes a low brow humor that will make you laugh but won’t stick with you. Kung Fu Panda takes the easy way out and will be forgotten by the time the next big thing rolls through the doors of your multiplex.