In recent years I’ve largely been disappointed by animated movies. Even Pixar’s Cars couldn’t draw me to the theatre. Finally Wall-E opens this summer, but before that, a surprise. And a surprise worth everyone’s 14 dollars. Kung-Fu Panda does what other animated films now forget to do. It tells it’s story without choosing a different aspect of pop culture to reference every 5 lines (even the puns that litter other movie posters were thankfully lacking during the marketing campaign, as were the annoying references to all the starts that lent their voices…who cares???), but the film also takes full advantage of the fact that…it’s…animated.
Drawing loads of inspiration from the Chinese Fantasy Martial Arts films in which Kung-Fu masters fight on mountain tops and forests; these animals balance, jump, dive, fly, roll and hurtle through the air like pieces of paper in a tornado. It’s beautiful and on occasions visually overwhelming in scope – almost scary. But never once is it not fun or thrilling. The first five minutes alone exceeds the level of visual/visceral film making and personality/humor than any other Dreamworks animated film I’ve ever seen (including Shrek — I enjoyed the second one a little…)
Po the Panda is voiced to perfection by Jack Black, who allows Po to enjoy every second of his Kung-Fu training even when he is being beaten to a pulp. The character gives an air of inspiration to the task at hand and reminds us that if we really love doing something, we should love it regardless of how difficult it may be sometimes.
But how could Po be the Dragon Master? The legendary martial artist chosen to defeat the villain of the film. He’s fat, uncoordinated and while %100 passionate, he’s also %100 insecure. The Furious Five aren’t much help, neither is their Master Shifu, who has just as much faith in Po as I do that the gas prices will go down any time soon.
It’s when they begin to befriend Po and Shifu discovers a means to train him that the film becomes an absolute blast. I laughed out loud on several occasions, even during the final credit crawl. It becomes a sheer joy to watch, only because Po shares with us the joy in what he does.
But it isn’t just the humor or martial arts that makes this film great. It’s the attention to detail provided by the director and the animators. So much care was taken when creating specific movements from characters in order to allow us to understand who they are in a matter of seconds. Even the details when concerned with story. Watch through the end credits and you’ll see one of the most tender moments in a film so far this year (or of last year for that matter.)
Not to mention the voice work is exceptional. Dustin Hoffman growls as Master Shifu and James Wong fills in the voice of Po’s stork father. Both are wonderful.
There’s a little spiritual mumbo-jumbo talk. “There are no accidents.” Really…? Otherwise, the story is simple, but the message is a clear and a good one. If you love what you do and have faith that you’ll be the best, you probably can be.
A movie I’m definitely willing to see a second time.
P.S. I have briefly forgotten about last years wonderful Ratatouille and Persepolis. Two animated films everyone should also see.