Monday, June 16, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

There was a definitely palpable anticipation emanating from the excited crowd as the movie theatre house lights went down and the first flickers of 'Kung Fu Panda' hit the screen. Well, the lights have come up and we can all relax and breathe a zen sigh of relief because the film delivers well on all important aspects - directing, cinematography, character design, and animation - with such humor, wit AND without pulling any punches (couldn't resist).

Jack Black is the voice of Po, a giant panda filled with a hearty appetite for food and loaded with hero worship for the Furious Five, a legendary group of kung fu fighters who protect his village. Black's vocal performance embues Po with loads of personality and heart. Po dreams of being a kung fu hero but in reality, his life as a noodle soup maker is humdrum. The plot progresses to take Po out of his dull life and into the exciting world of kung fu (didn't see that coming didja?).

From the opening 2-D sequence, accomplished in a highly stylized, very graphic presentation evocative of traditional Far Eastern shadow puppetry aesthetics - the movie is visually compelling. Any artist worth his salt will note the dazzling color design and its use to successfully support the emotions evoked throughout the film. I think to begin the film in one style, based on tradition, is a wonderfully effective choice, particularly when the movie zips to CG/3-D animation. It grabs you. (Find link to Opening Dream Sequence. Only watch this one - other clips may contain spoilers.)

Noteworthy vocal performances come from Dustin Hoffman as Head Master (Shifu Red Panda); Ian McShane as Tai Lung (Snow Leopard), Randall Duk Kim as Ancient Master Oogway (Tortoise) and Angela Jolie as Master Tigress (South China Tiger). The movie also features Jackie Chan (Master Monkey), Lucy Liu (Master Viper), Seth Rogen (Master Mantis), James Hong (Mr. Ping) and Michael Clarke Duncan (Javan Rhinoceros) all getting as much character and emotion out of their parts as the script will allow them.

Vocal performance highpoints include Dustin Hoffman's droll delivery in the face of Po's inept fighting and Ian McShane's resurrection of the energy and passion of his Deadwood character, Al Swearengen in his villianous snow leopard's threats. (I was a huge Deadwood fan and to listen to McShane even come close to Swearengen made me giggle during the film.)

Character design and animation is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. It was apparent when I first saw the trailers and doubly confirmed as I watched the film. Very appealing designs all around. And the movement, particularly during the fight scenes is wonderfully creative. The highlight here are the poses created for each of the Furious Five's meditative states. Oh, and the movement on Oogway the tortoise. His slight tremor of his head and hands while he speaks make for the best kind of character animation - denoting age and wisdom and frailty all at once.

(Here's a link to the title sequence: Kung Fu Panda Titles)

The movie operates on a few levels when it comes to humor. And it's not hard to figure out and understand. There are the juvenile lowbrow jokes and the wittier jokes. The sight gags tend to be more on the lowbrow, occasionally predictable side but the movie's wit really shines when it simultaneously satirizes and celebrates the flashy fighting, aerial acrobatics, and even cinematic technique, established in live action kung fu movies from the Bruce Lee flicks of the '70s to present day Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan. Many times the 'master/student' relationship is mined for its inherent comedic possiblities.

The plot, though forgivably predictable in sections, takes a secondary seat to the excellent design and movement. I liked the plot's simplicity. It does what it should - driving the movie forward - without getting in the way. And the benefit here is without worrying about any significant plot complications, I was free to explore the dazzingly rich environmental design and textures. My eyes could linger over the more beautiful sections, which is kind of a rarity in movies these days. (Can anyone say 'Speed Racer'?)

Anyway, I would recommend this movie for kids and adults. Two opposable thumbs up. Go see it.

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