WARNING: I PURPOSELY LAID SPOILERS THROUGOUT THE REVIEW. THEY’RE HIDING NINJA STYLE.
When Dreamworks did its Hollywood upfront of Kung Fu Panda this week, they got no less than the eminent animation historian Jerry Beck to host the event. As is typical of the man, he opened the whole thing with one of his wonderfully snarky comments.
According to an informed source, Beck stated he had already seen the film, and he found nothing wrong with it. He then added this was particularly amazing considering it was a Dreamworks film. From what I understand, Dreamworks head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg wasn’t at this showing. Probably a good thing too…or the world might be short one noted animation historian.
I never had problems with Dreamworks. Yes, Shrek III was no where near as good as its previous entries, but this studio left me on the floor with the first film in that series. I found Madagascar highly entertaining and would love to see a sequel to Over the Hedge. The studio is highly capable at delivering above average, even some exceptionally good, family entertainment.
With Kung Fu Panda, Katzenberg and company have now made lives exceedingly difficult for themselves. Directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne have set a standard that is so high, only a true Shaolin monk might be able to leap over its heights.
As reported in my interview with directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson (/88-chatting-with-the-directors-of-dreamworks-kung-fu-panda-p1.html), KFP was a tremendous joint effort that included a number of unusual and talented specialists, not forgetting what sounds like a crack team of key frame 3-D animators. The lead character of Po (voiced by Jack Black) himself is not exactly the easiest one in the world to animate, but they managed to make him and his co-stars marvelously emotive. If you need further illustration, check out Po’s teacher Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) or the bear’s temple master, the tortoise Ooogway (Randall Duk Kim).
It doesn’t hurt that Black, Hoffman and Kim all provide bravado performances in their own right, but the animation on each character is right up there with the voice work. Black tones down the hyper-aggressive vocal performances he usually performs to make Po truly a humble character frustrated with the issues presented to him. Hoffman makes his initial hatred for his new student to the point that you believe it when he becomes his biggest supporter.
But if you really want to see character animation at its best, check out Ooogway. Kim provides the character a wonderfully Zen-like mix of humor and wisdom, managing to make his koan-like lessons not just palatable, but both informative and entertaining. To top it, if you pay careful attention, the character itself is in constant motion. Yes, the motion is as appropriately slow as a tortoise should be, but it’s there. The end result is Ooogway’s body language helps drive his critical lessons to Po and Shifu, and then guide us into seeing their respective transformations.
In fact, if I had any gripe at all, it’s that the film is just plain chock full of interesting characters, whether it’s the temple’s normal protectors, The Furious Five, Po’s very ducky dad, the primary villain Tai Lung (Ian McShane), and many, many more. I’d have loved to have heard and seen more of the Five, in particular. How can you not want to see more of the likes of Jackie Chan, Seth Rogan, David Cross and Lucy Liu working off of each other? Heck, they even make Angelina Jolie’s flat performance work, especially in a great battle scene on a bridge with Tai Lung.
Still, it’s another early scene, where Tai Lung escapes from his prison of two decades, that really tell you how far the Dreamworks team has matured. The prison is in the bottom of a mountain cave, some 1,000 feet underground with only a basket from the peak as its main access. After inventively using his tail and a feather to free him from his bounds, Tai Lung starts leaping and scrambling, dodging all manner of ancient Chinese weaponry and taking out a herd of well-armed rhinos at breakneck speed. It can stand up there with some of Jackie Chan’s best stunt sequences or the legendary Zu films for heart pounding inventiveness. More important, after now seeing the film twice, one realized this sequence is stockpiled with incredible detail that could be easily missed on a first run through.
Also of interest is the use of traditional animation for sequences that are not in “real time.” Used primarily as a device for tales by Po, the design of the traditional animation is some of the most visually striking work since Samurai Jack. Provided by James Baxter and a number of the CGI animators happy to break out their watercolors and gauche tubes, what’s really important here is they actually enhance the storytelling while giving the eyes a very different feast from the CGI. It makes me hopeful we see a lot more traditional animation from Dreamworks in the future, too.
Special effects and crafty animation aside, what truly sets Kung Fu Panda into the hall of immortal 'toons is it is backed by a solid story. Yes, it’s a classic Asian action plot of a seemingly unworthy student proving that he’s the One. It’s a tale that has been a Hong Kong stable since time immemorial. The thing is, when you put all the various components together, Stevenson and Osborne put it all together masterfully, and delivered this age old chestnut in a highly refreshing and entertaining manner. As Beck stated at the upfront, there was nothing wrong with this film. As I put it, it’s already going down as one of my favorite animated films of the year. I am definitely looking forward to seeing it again (yep, that would be a third time).
Now how’s that for a compliment? See it for yourself and try to say otherwise.