Thursday, June 12, 2008

There is no charge for awesome

This is shaping up to be a very strange summer. So far the only movie that has met my expectations was Iron Man. The stuff I was hoping to like (Indiana Jones-more on this later today)has disappointed and the stuff I wrote off (Speed Racer) has been a lot of fun. Well chock another write-off into the liked it a lot category with my viewing of Kung-Fu Panda.

I'm unbelievably pleased with this film from Dreamworks Animation, which is endlessly visually inventive, full of original and exciting action sequences and some very solid celebrity vocal work. For the most part Dreamworks has had a nasty run of mediocre to bad films where the pastiche of pop culture references plus hot celebrity turns into a mish-mash that makes a moderately decent baby sitter to anyone under the age of eight but hardly qualifies as genuine entertainment for anyone else watching it. I'm enormously pleased to report that the scatology and pop-culture reference returns are nowhere to be found in this film. The plot itself is the standard believe in yourself and your dreams and don't quit stock parable that populates dozens of children's films, however Kung-Fu Panda separates itself with a distinct voice and visual presentation from its first frames.
Oh and what frames they are. The film opens with an elaborate dream sequence where the young panda, Po (Jack Black) dreams of himself as the ultimate martial arts master, rendered in a stylized two-dimensional animation. The sequence is narrated by Black and immediately establishes his character as a sort of goofy but earnest and enthusiastic fan-boy. When the bunnies he save ask how they can repay him he responds in an attempted burst laconic cool that "There is no charge for awesomeness...or attractiveness." It was about here that the movie had me. Po is quickly woken from his dream though to face the reality of him being the tubby, clumsy son of a goose noodle vendor (James Hung). But Po is soon thrust into the spotlight of in front of his idols the Furious Five, under the tutelage of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman as some sort of squirrel/lemur thing), one of whom is about to be named the Green Dragon Warrior, the hero of the valley these characters inhabit. When Po is picked, seemingly by accident, by the sage turtle Master Oogway (a canny, all to brief performance from Randall Duk Kim) everyone is shocked. The Five (made up of a variety of animals who fight in the style of their animal) resent and reject Po and Shifu is worried sick as Po is meant to defend the valley from the recently escaped villain Tai-Lung (Ian McShane), Shifu's previous and deadliest pupil. Will Shifu find a way to train the seemingly hopeless and blundering Po and will Po learn that he has the confidence and skill to be the new dragon warrior?
Obviously. While the story is never in doubt, it's execution zips along in scene after scene of animated splendor and rousing action taken in equal parts from the Shaw Brothers Kung-Fu films and the wushu ballet of films like Crouching Tiger and Come Drink With Me. Scenes like the escape of Tai-Lung are filled with gorgeous moments such as when the sky goes red with arrows and the evil snow leopard must leap to the underbelly of a platform or when Shifu learns to motivate his student and the subsequent chopstick battle that ensues. Even small moments like the reveal and departure of Master Oogway the animators find innovative ways to present what in a lesser film seem very pat and predictable. Does the film have the weight, heft or depth of a Pixar film? No. The Furious Five, while impressively animated and given lots of build-up aren't particularly well-established as characters despite the talented ensemble on hand to voice them. However, given the film's appropriate run-time the audience is better served with Master Shifu and Po, both characters written charmingly enough to give Hoffman and Black enough motivation to prevent them from falling into each actors typical routine. Kung-Fu Panda is a film of simple visual pleasures and a surprisingly fun way to pass the time until we're graced by the inevitable genius of Wall-E.

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