Chinese screen fighting receives a relatively sophisticated and enjoyable digitalized representation in DreamWork’s latest computer-animated feature film. The fighting action is as dynamic and creative as any live-action wire-fu match by Yuen Woo-ping while the story is a refreshingly simple tale that relies on solid storytelling and timeless situational comedy rather than mere gimmicks such as fast-talking comedians spewing forth a litany of dated pop culture references.
Jack Black is well cast as the voice of Po, a fun-loving, introspective and rotund panda bear named Po who works his father’s (James Hong) noodle shop while dreaming about living through martial adventures with his heroes, the Furious Five. This group of renowned martial arts students is under the tutelage of their short but powerful master, curiously named Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) which in Mandarin literally means master or teacher. The name actually presents a cultural gaffe that Westerners may not catch when Shifu’s master, a tortoise named Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) calls his student “Shifu” also. That would be like a martial arts instructor calling one of his students “Master.”
Like many classic kung fu movie plots, Po dreams of being a hero himself. This is wonderfully animated in 2-D during a stylized opening similar in art design to Genndy Tartakovsky’s SAMURAI JACK. As good as the 3-D animation is throughout the movie – the color palette and general art direction are superb, I would have been very pleased to see the entire movie animated in this bold style. Hopefully, this is a measure of what we can expect from the SAMURAI JACK movie.
Po ventures to a competition where the Furious Five are performing an exhibition. It is there that Oogway will also crown one fighter as the sacred Dragon Warrior, a title that in this martial world basically is the highest station a fighter can achieve.
This is where we witness the first real action as Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) perform while Po humorously struggles to get past a locked gate. As fate would have it, Po drops in just in time to be crowned the Dragon Warrior despite having no martial arts training.
Shifu is instructed to train Po and this leads us into the obligatory training sequences. After all, this is a martial arts movie in animated form. The design team constructed a terrific hall of horrors with spinning wooden dummies, spiked pendulums, and flaming floors. It’s like something out of a Joseph Kuo film such as THE 18 BRONZEMEN. The animators put their own unique spin on the scenario with a degree of light-hearted humor which beats the bloodied experiences of classic kung fu era stars like Carter Wong and Gordon Liu.
The film later pays homage to more traditional comic training scenes in kung fu movies such as DRUNKEN MASTER when Po and Shifu discover a training regime involving food that works. They proceed to get down to serious business. Their escalating food fight over a bowl of dumplings is a blast.
A martial arts movie is only as good as its lead villain and KUNG FU PANDA scores by offering up the fierce Tai Lung, wonderfully voiced acted by DEADWOOD star Ian McShane. He’s a white tiger who was once Shifu’s prized pupil and is now locked up in a dungeon under heavy guard lead by a rhinoceros appropriately voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan (DAREDEVIL).
Tai Lung’s escape from the prison is my favorite action sequence in the film, mostly because it has the fewest obvious correlations to other live-action martial arts movies. There is one notable one that works well visually. Tai Lung is kept chained up in what looks like an empty turtle shell with a bunch of rods sticking out the back. In Chinese martial arts lore, particularly representatively of the early 1990s Wong Jing and Ching Siu-tung wuxia period, these rods would act as pressure point locks to restrict Tai Lung’s qi energy flow and keep him from channeling it to break his bonds and escape. Once they are removed, Tai Lung leaps into action in a fantastic display as he fights his way out.
This sequence and Tai Lung’s fighting style also highlights one of the film’s greatest assets. Each of the fighters in the movie are actually different animals and the animators go to great lengths to keep their movements grounded in say how a tiger might actually move or use his body while giving them the added ability to kick and punch with recognizable kung fu stances and patterns. Sharp-eyed viewers will see characters perform the horse stance and other traditional movements.
Another brilliant fight sequence sees the Furious Five rashly confront Tai Lung who, having recently escaped is racing back to Shifu to steal a sacred scroll that holds the secret of the Dragon Warrior’s power. They end up battling it out on a bridge that has already been cut. This adds comic tension when some of the characters are forced to hold up the bridge while the others fight.
Fight choreography, whether animated or live, requires a lot of creativity to keep tension and interest up, especially when we’ve seen a lot of fancy moves already in other films. Granted, this is a family movie and kids may not yet recognize references to past Hong Kong action movies although genre fans undoubtedly will.
Towards the end, the fight scenes become more outrageous and familiar. A scene where the Furious Five bound over rooftops recalls CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. Lau Wai-keung’s fantasy wuxia actioner DUEL (2000) is referenced in another rooftop scene where fighters rocket through a ceiling. KUNG FU HUSTLE comes to mind as Po uses his belly to knock Tai Lung into the stratosphere.
Despite similarities to past martial arts movies, KUNG FU PANDA smartly steers clear of obvious parodies. Thankfully, there are no MATRIX moments or other similarly lazy nonsense. Directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson keep things tied to the somewhat unique world they have created. It’s a world that at times is very inviting, particularly as scenic vistas are revealed or during quaint moments with highly animated extras in the background who fill out a scene. I found myself instantly attracted to the denizens of pigs and rabbits that populate Po’s village, eating noodle soup or simply idling with no speech. Their facial expressions are wonderful and recall the dry physical humor of Aardman Animation as seen in their WALLACE & GROMIT films.
A problem I have with the film is there isn’t enough interaction from the co-stars or extras. Too much of the movie revolves exclusively around Po, Shifu and Tai Lung. The Furious Five have a lot of action scenes but little in the way of character-building moments. I was especially disappointed by Jackie Chan’s limited role as Monkey. He barely says anything. On top of this, these characters are lacking distinction although they have the basis for being more interesting. There just isn’t enough time to flesh it out and yet it seems the film lingers too long on the mysticism of Oogway and his relationship with Shifu. The pacing was a little off on some of the interaction between these two characters. This was reinforced in my mind by increased shuffling of the younger members of the theater audience around me during these chatty scenes. The thing that gets me is that the studio must have paid a high price for the A-list voice talent and yet aside from Black, Hoffman and McShane, they could have used anyone for the remaining roles and it wouldn’t have made any significant difference.
Even with its few faults, KUNG FU PANDA is much better than I had expected it to be. I am so accustomed to martial arts and martial arts movies being treated like a joke by a typically ill-informed Hollywood that the sincerity behind this animated feature caught me a little off guard. The filmmakers really did set out to make an animated martial arts movie, not just another SHREK with Chinese themes. None of the characters were quite strong enough to warrant a sequel but if the film makes enough money it will probably happen anyway. If so, I hope they go with the art style of the opening sequence as Po becomes the hero of his dreams. I never thought I’d consider a panda bear as a credible fighter but if being big works for Sammo Hung it might as well work for Po. He’s got good belly-fu.REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda (2008),
Animation • DreamWorks • gallery • Jackie Chan