So apparently there were two big animated films that were released this year (three if you count Sex and the City) which seemed to equally capture the hearts and wallets of the American moviegoing public. One was about a mysterious robot named Wall-E, and the other was titled Kung Fu Panda. Judging from the early trailers, the movie couldn't be accused of misleading advertising. It was after all, a film about a panda, who knows kung fu. But Dreamworks, the studio that struck gold several years ago with the Shrek films, was hitching its wagon to this star. I guess I couldn't blame them; kids will go see anything that's computer-generated these days.
That might not be a fair categorization of the film, which was written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (whose biggest claim to fame before this was writing several King of the Hill episodes) and directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson (who previously had been astoryboard artist on such Dreamworks animated fare like Shrek 2 and Madagascar). The panda who knows the kung fu is Po (Jack Black, Tropic Thunder). Po doesn't know the fu initially; he works at a noodle shop for his father Mr. Ping (James Hong, Big Trouble in Little China). Po has aspirations of doing more than being handed the noodle store as part of a multi-generational tradition. He wants to learn kung fu and uses the inspirations of Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium) and his students to try and learn the fighting styles. The students are Tigress (Angelina Jolie, Wanted), Monkey (Jackie Chan, Rush Hour), Viper (Lucy Liu, Kill Bill), Crane (David Cross, Mr. Show) and Mantis (Seth Rogen, Knocked Up). Through a twist of fate, Po is chosen by the Temple Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim, The Matrix Reloaded) to be the new Dragon Warrior, through what appears to be an accident. Shifu's students, titled the "Furious Five," are rightfully upset at this new happening, but Shifu decides to train Po for the new position out of respect and loyalty to Oogway. One of Shifu's older students, a snow leopard named Tai Lung (Ian McShane, Deadwood) is under the impression that he is the Dragon Warrior, but his style was reckless and he was confined to prison years ago. When Tai Lung breaks out and fights the new Dragon Warrior, well, it's a little more than a rumble in the jungle, if you get my meaning.
At the risk of sounding a little bit snobbish in the animated family film department, is it wrong for me to suggest that Kung Fu Panda doesn't really deliver? Sure, the film's charm rides on the shoulders of Black, and his enthusiasm and fun really adds to the appeal of Po and the likability of the character, but Po is a little bit on the husky side, so to speak, so many of the jokes fall on the "Po is fat" mantra, which is sometimes a little bit tiring to sit through. And as far as the Furious Five go, well sure they're badass kung fu fighters and that's nice, but I think developing a secondary storyline which would not have included them in any of the second and third act would probably have been a good thing. I enjoyed and laughed out loud watching Po's development into a fighter by Shifu, and the rapport that Black and Hoffman go through is almost an Abbott and Costello-like delivery at times, and I was really enjoying it. I didn't really feel an inkling of said enjoyment when the Furious Five were onscreen, and the only character who seemed to care about being slighted was Tigress. Granted, it was for obvious reasons, since she was the most polished fighter, but don't cast a couple of potheads and Jackie Chan in supporting roles for animated characters. Any apathy that Rogen and Cross seemed to show was apparent on screen, and I had to look on the intertubes to know that Chan was the Monkey.
So yeah, Kung Fu Panda is fun, and the filmmakers really know and love the kung fu backdrop and use it to their advantage, but there wasn't an emotional connection that really could be made with the characters, and their lack of humanity doesn't play into this, whether you agree or not. The thing that made people go to this was the visual appeal, but once you look past that, you get a story about a plump loser who wants to do more but can't, until given the circumstances to excel in one fashion or another. Isn't that just like most other Dreamworks animated films these days?
In 2.35:1 widescreen (the first Dreamworks production to be presented in Scope according to the filmmakers), the AVC MPEG-4 codec is a beauty. Detail is fantastic; you can see things like fine hair on Po, or the textures on Mr. Ping (and his beak specifically), or the wrinkles in Oogway's face and skin. Background depth is just as sharp, with many of the temples looking like a digital postcard of sorts. In addition, the film does these very quick camera moves without pixelating and this very frenetic picture handles all of it well, such as the benefit of being done digitally. If you want reference quality, you're going to find it here.
Kung Fu Panda's Dolby TrueHD soundtrack brings the goods as much as and perhaps better than the video presentation. Dialogue is strong in the center channel, and sound effects sound crisp and clear without volume boosts, like in early sequences when the noodles are being prepared, and in later sequences when Po and Shifu battle over the elusive last dumpling. But in other sequences, like when Tai Lung breaks out of prison, you get a highly immersive and effective mix of speaker panning, directional activity and low end engagement that makes one's ears weep and one's salivary glands lose control. Even higher pitched noises (like virtually anything that Mantis does) are free of any distortion, and when you finally get to the climactic battle, you're rewarded with a final sound effect that is breathtaking sonically. Fantastic work to behold on this disc.
While there's a lot of material on this set, it's clear a chunk of it was geared towards the target demographic, so kids will enjoy this disc, assuming you've got a PS3 or similarly easy-to-use Blu-ray player. Osborne and Stevenson join forces for a commentary which isn't too bad. They discuss the origins of the idea and what they wanted to accomplish for a particular scene as it unfolds, along with the requisite style choices and story discussions. Working with the cast is also recalled and how each actor contributed to the project, and inspirations for specific scenes are touched on as well. Perhaps not hand in hand with this track, but pretty close to it, is the BD exclusive "Animator's Corner," which is a picture-in-picture track which uses some material from a camera pointed at Osborne and Stevenson, but also includes storyboards and animatics for the scenes on screen, along with footage of the directors with their cast members (okay, just Black), which I've always kind of wanted to see on animated features like this. The commentary is good, and the PiP track was a clever and worthwhile inclusion. While we're on the subject of tracks, there's a subtitled trivia option available (also exclusive to the BD), but it's kind of boring.
Moving on, "Meet the Cast" (13:18) shows the rest of the cast in studio doing voices at various times, and also includes interview footage with them as they share what they like about the film and the characters they play, while Osborne and Stevenson share what the cast brought to the film and their general thoughts on the actors they landed. "Pushing the Boundaries" (7:07) discusses the computer graphic difficulties for the film, based on the filmmakers' intentions, and what had to change and be adapted to meet the dynamics for the film. "Conservation International" (2:00) is a public service announcement by Black. Three set top games follow which are inspired by the events in the game and seem complicated based on the instructions, but are pretty easy to follow. A piece on the sound design is next (3:54), but it kind of looks more like a foley artist session than anything else, and a music video (2:29) for the film follows. "Learn the Panda Dance" (4:32) is when someone called "Hi-Hat" shows you how to do a dance move from the film, while "Do You Kung Fu?" examines the fighting styles in the film. An accompanying piece titles "What Fighting Style Are You?" gives you that answer upon answering some random personality questions. "Mr. Ping's Noodle House" (4:43) is really a piece where the Food Network's Alton Brown shows us the art of making noodles. Why they would include this and not the "Ace of Cakes" piece from said network (when a cake was make of the characters and temple was made for the film's premiere) is a baffler. "How to Use 2 Chopsticks" (2:55) is just that, while, "Inside the Chinese Zodiac" examines the Chinese Calendar, and you can see what symbol you are (yay, year of the rat!). The "Animals of Kung Fu Panda" (6:18) examines the fighting styles in a little more detail and their place in kung fu, along with the animals themselves, while a Dreamworks Video Jukebox allows you to see and play songs from other Dreamworks animated titles.
There is also some downloadable BD-Live content to enjoy, starting with "Po Around the World," which allows the viewer to hear "squidoosh" in a dozen different languages, with my favorites being German and Swedish. "A Day in the Life" (11:11) shows your typical shaolin monk's training, from the time they wake up to bedtime, and includes a lot of footage of monks training at a temple. A monk's progress is covered, along with some of the technical fighting moves that many of them employ. There's even some talk as to some of the Buddhist fundamentals included in the Shaolin, all of which making for an interesting featurette. Oh yeah, there are also trailers for Monster vs. Alien and Madagascar 2 to whet your whistle.
Kung Fu Panda is fun, and the voices are nice to point out, but the story lacks any sort of originality or "out of the box" thinking that makes it appealing to anyone past the child demographic. The supplements tend to lean this way too, which is disappointing considering how good the Blu-ray disc looks and sounds on a home theater system. Fans of the film should not hesitate to buy it, but if you've not seen the film and are looking for reference-quality fare that is at least emotionally compelling, there are better films out there.