Come Academy Awards time, Oscar's got a bit of a decision to make. Up until this point, the Best Animated Feature category has usually leaned towards two pretty distinct spectrums: message films like the eco-perseverance nature of Finding Nemo and Happy Feet, or displays of oafish goofiness like Wallace and Gromit and Shrek. This year, Pixar's film du jour, Wall-E, has cornered the market on the "save the earth" typecast again with a cute little list of characters that say nary a word the entire film. It's a great animated feature with a good -- if forceful -- message to humanity underneath its enveloping chipperness.
Then, there's DreamWorks's Kung Fu Panda, a rich CG-animated spectacle featuring a plump panda named Po fumbling along as he becomes a kung-fu master. It carries a point, sure: anybody can do just about anything if they try hard enough and believe. It's a good message for the younger audience out there, one that the DreamWorks team has rustled up before. But that's not the big draw to Kung Fu Panda; with all its punchy, well-written dialogue, all its blooming heart, and all its lovely kung-fu essence and attitude, it becomes a work of sheer joy and vision that offers the most satisfying experience that you can have in front of an animated film this year -- or from the past couple of years. With the early splashes of Kung Fu Panda's marketing work, I'll admit my animation-loving excitement started to boil quick for DreamWorks' project, but there was still that concern that it might surrender adult attention to create more of a sugary substance for the young ones to chomp up. Thankfully, much in the vein of their big green ogre cash cow, that isn't the case.
Dreaming up Panda's basis was probably the easiest and most enjoyable part of the entire conceptualization process, as it takes a cornucopia of cliché kung-fu mannerisms and shamelessly combines them for one, giant uber-cliché of a story -- and, trust me, that's a very satisfying play. Our panda bear Po, voiced with instant recognition by Jack Black (School of Rock), works with his father (James Hong, Big Trouble in Little China) in a noodle shop placed somewhere in ancient China. During the day, he's sucking in his gut while wiggling around tables and serving up delicious dishes to the customers. When he's not working, however, he's dreaming in ramped-up fanboy fashion of being a member of the Furious Five -- a group of kung-fu masters training to be the all-mighty Dragon Warrior. He's the classic stargazer with the noodle shop and his visible appearance as the invisible ceiling that keeps him pinned down from his desires.
There's classic cinematic and martial arts influence at play in the Five's appearance, stuff that'll soak right into genre fans' vision at blunt sight while developing quickly with the younger audience. Their animal species mirror some of the more renowned combat styles featured in rough-and-tumble kung-fu cinema: Tiger (Angelina Jolie, Wanted), Monkey (Jackie Chan, Forbidden Kingdom), Mantis (Seth Rogen, 40 Year Old Virgin), Crane (David Cross, Men in Black), and Viper (Lucy Liu, Kill Bill) are all matched to their vocal talents with seamless precision and given just enough dialogue per character to capture a little wedge of the film. Atop a huge mountain with many a stair leading up to their hideout, they train under the tutelage of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man), a rare red panda that looks like a chinchilla / raccoon hybrid. Oh, and their "grand" master is a slow-speaking, all-knowing tortoise named Oogway who, at the Dragon Warrior ceremony, accidentally appoints the plump noodle-serving Po as the all-powerful kung-fu master.
I know, could've seen that from a Great Wall of China's distance out, right? Don't worry; DreamWorks knows that, and they plan on playing off that familiarity. From there, Kung Fu Panda whips together a checklist of all these entertaining typecasts and formulaic turns for the martial arts genre -- the early ridicule of the eager yet daft disciple, the jealousy blooming from more qualified students, the training sequences -- and pumps them full of energy and age-sprawling humor that fails to let up amid its confetti-blast gorgeous animation. It's just a splendid, enthralling good time that has enough brains to know when the humor should be brainless and not, and more than enough heart to know when to be sentimental -- which, in a genre that can easily teeter-totter between child and adult focus, is the picture of splendid execution.
DreamWorks Animation persistently struggles to cross one giant hurdle -- keeping their projects' vigor buoyant enough for nearly an hour and a half, an issue that even wiggles into the beloved Shrek films. For others, like Shark Tale and Madagascar, they lose their energy quick and become mere eye candy for kids waiting to gobble it up. Kung Fu Panda, with its host of charismatic, pitch-perfect vocal entities and engagingly incensed action, keeps the momentum surging forward from start to finish in a way that proves DreamWorks has learned from past mistakes. It's a bouquet of slapstick humor and dizzying martial arts action, all of which flows in a fashion that gives the animation enough compelling attitude to balance between fantasy and tangibility until the credits roll.
But what's surprising is how effective Kung Fu Panda can be as an action flick. It swings on the subplot revolving around Master Shifu's former disciple Tai Lung, voiced with raspy gravitas by Ian McShane, as he breaks out from imprisonment to claim his position as the Dragon Warrior. That scene, riddles with tough-as-nails rhinos led by a Michael Clarke Duncan-voiced leader, offers a wallop of a gripping action sequence as massive stalactites and flying arrows thwart the furious snow tiger's efforts. His rapid approach to the kung-fu training grounds -- fueled with rage and fighting skill that only the "Dragon Warrior" could defeat -- becomes a great bridge between the silly "beat on Po until he weakens" dynamic and the semi-serious training work that accompanies all martial arts movies.
Training sequences are always entertaining, but I specifically enjoyed this one with Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman playing off of each other. DreamWorks stretches their animation legs to create some rather stunning skylines and depth-of-field renderings during these scenes which, much like Kill Bill Vol. 2,, pay homage to great sequences from 36th Chamber of Shaolin to Enter the Dragon that involve the struggles of "eating food", practicing a rehearsed series of stances (kata), and developing the student's all-around skill and spiritual development. It builds to Po's big foreseeable transition which, in refreshing manner, doesn't necessarily paint the portrait of flawlessness -- but does possess a natural rhythm about its formulaic turns.
Hats off to the studio for digging deep into their collective imagination to mold a real hit out of all these grand influences and robust blasts of energy; sure, Over the Hedge and a few of their secondary efforts outside of the Shrek franchise have garnered scattered family praise, but none of them have been able to take off and have the kind of longevity that Kung Fu Panda will probably have. It's hard not to love all the rambunctious action and magnetic plush-animal characters, especially when it seems perfectly crafted to carry Jack Black's unique vocal style. Simply, Kung Fu Panda's blast of a premise could've gone either of two ways, and I'm glad that it decided to invite and entertain the moms, pops, and lovers of great animation to its whimsical liveliness. It's more than deserving of Best Animated Feature accolades, even if it'll probably play second banana once award season rolls around. But no matter -- I'm still rooting for the big, fluffy panda.
DreamWorks have send over the two-pack Kung Fu Panda / Secrets of the Furious Five package for our evaluation with coverart that resembles one of the nicely-done pieces of marketing material for the film -- with a few added character touches. The two lines of coverart for both DVDs connect when lined up next to each other. Sadly, DreamWorks has opted to go the silver-topped disc route again for this release.
Translating computer-generated animation over to both standard-definition and high-definition mediums produce near-faultless results on average, which undoubtedly is the case for Kung Fu Panda's 2.35:1 widescreen image that's enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Boy, the level of detail, color richness, and motion rendering is absolutely stellar on this disc, though it does show a few instances of glaring digital problems like edge enhancement and macro blocking. It's pretty jaw-dropping to see the level of intricacy within some of the wood grains and stone textures, fur and scaly skins, and numerous other environment details. The only place where it suffers is during massively-active sequences, such as when confetti flies about and character models move a hair too fast for the digital image to keep up -- as it renders a bit of block-ish pixelation. All together, Kung Fu Panda's visual treatment is close to the highest shelf that you're going to get to in the standard-definition digital medium, but it does sport a few hints of imperfection.
To say the least, Kung Fu Panda's sound stage becomes quite lively at many points during the film, which are replicated with ample strength in this Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound option. There's plenty of thuds, thumps, wobbles, and explosive bursts to activate the lower-frequency channels, but it's in the little effects -- like the grinding of porcelain plates on stone and clang of a gong -- that really show off the great audio treatment. Vocal strength stays clean and clear all the way through, while the great Asian-infused score carries appropriate all the way through the film. It matches the visual treatment in strength, melding to its efforts to create a splendid digital treatment for a ravishing effects-driven piece of work. Subtitles are available in optional English, Spanish, and French languages, while a Spanish 5.1 surround track and English and French 2.0 Stereo options are also options for consideration.
Unfortunately, the supplemental material is a bit limited to older audiences, though it'll give the younger parties plenty to soak in after they finish the film.
Directors' Commentary with Jim Stevenson and Mark Osborne:
Stevenson and Osborne seem fully aware that the majority of the supplemental features would probably gear more towards the younger audience, which is why they seem to focus heavily on a solid, more adult-oriented commentary here. They discuss motifs, symbolism, and comical themes throughout that really dig into the underlying nature of Kung Fu Panda. It's a nice listen, though it can get a wee bit on the stiff side at times.
Meet the Cast (13:13):
Here, we spend a lengthy amount of time getting to know the full range of cast -- all whom have been brought onto a soundstage for interviews and recording sessions for their voices. There's some nice face-to-face time with each of the actors, ranging from the plentiful time with Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman to each of the supporting Furious Five, which shows them letting loose about their feelings for each of the characters and their vocal talents.
Pushing the Boundaries (7:04):
The technical aspects of Kung Fu Panda find concentration in this featurette, which explains the leaps and bounds that the animation department has made since some of their older features. There's a lot of concentration on texture and hair rendering, but there's also a lot in describing the character models and the ways that they gave gravity and natural movement to each animal / character.
Sound Design (3:51):
Sound plays a huge part in Kung Fu Panda, which comes by way of sound designer Ethan Van Der Ryn and a creative batch of artists who have constructed most of the film's audible elements by hand. Of course, the most entertaining footage comes with four of the designers standing on front of a table filled with everyday tools -- which soon turns into a jam session featuring several of the film's sound effects (stomach jiggling, suctioning, clanging, etc).
Mr. Ping's Noodle House (4:35):
Tying into Po and his father's noodle business, we're taken to Mr. Chow's noodle restaurant and shown how noodles are magically made through a pretty entrancing process of twisting and straining the dough. It's a simple, mainly kid-oriented little feature, but the noodle building through this process piqued this cook's interest.
How to Use Chopsticks (2:55):
Once again, we've got a kid-centric video that instructs on how to properly use chopsticks. It does let in a few useful bits of information for the non-chopstick-savvy, though, about where to keep the weight in your hand for best usage, as well as reaffirming that it's cool and polite to dig in and lift the bowl to your face for rice consumption.
Conservation International: How to Save Wild Pandas (1:57):
Narrated by Jack Black, this two-minute blurb gives a bit of insight into the nature of the panda's existence in the wild. It also concentrates on the problem of dwindling bamboo supply in China's forest, which relates to the conversationalist message in this message that focuses on keeping that area safe.
Also made available are a Kung Fu Fighting Music Video feat. Cee-Lo (which has a few spans of unseen animation), a Dragon Warrior Training Academy interactive game, a DreamWorks Animation Video JukeBox featuring music videos from each of the studio's films, and a trio of Trailers -- none, sadly, of Kung Fu Panda. However, there is one for ...
Secrets of the Furious Five (Disc 2):
As an added bonus, DreamWorks have also assembled a short animated feature entitled Secrets of the Furious Five as an exclusive two-pack for the standard DVD. Running at around twenty-four minutes, this feature focuses on Po as he begins instruction on a class of soon-to-be kung-fu bunnies. Instead of getting to the juicy stuff and teaching different punches, stances, and the rest of the stuff that young kick-happy students might want to learn, he tells them the stories of each member of the Furious Five -- and the qualities that they lacked before they started to train in the arts of kung-fu.
With Po's stories being fleshed out in a similar hand-drawn technique to that of the core film's dream sequence and end credits, Secrets of the Furious Five is a beautifully animated and decently entertaining supplement. It gives interesting insight into each of the characters, none of which that were boring or felt tacked on. The way that Po ties in each thing that they learned from their pasts, from courage and control to zen-like patience, works as a great lead-in for kids who are interested in all the physicality of martial arts. Secrets of the Furious Five entertains with a dose of parable teachings, while enchanting adult eyes with the animation that bookshelfs the film.
Video and Audio Quality:
Secrets of the Furious Five comes with the same level of quality as its parent disc. The animation looks stunning in its 1.78:1 widescreen-enhanced image, displaying the watercolor nature of the visuals with surprising strength. Matching the image, the short also comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track that, though not terribly active in the surround department, still offers a kick here and there with its sprawling properties. Not too shabby, DreamWorks!
Extras -- Po's Power Play and Land of the Panda:
Added as further special features, a great majority of these actually appeal more to the younger age quadrants who might be enjoying Kung Fu Panda. The material can be mildly interesting for adults, but it's mainly an activity disc that's best left for the younger crowd to dig through.
In Po's Power Play, there's a Learn to Draw feature that instructs the viewer on basic techniques in sketching each of the main characters, a Dumpling Shuffle game which is basically like the old magician's "three cups, one ball" game, and a Pandamonium Activity Kit which activates inside of the PC-DVD Rom.
In Land of the Panda, there's a Learn the Panda Dance where you learn a few dance moves, a Do You Know Kung Fu basic featurette, an Animals of Kung Fu feature which talks about the real nature behind each of the animals in the film and their geographical importance in China, as well as a somewhat fun What Fighting Style Are You question game. Note: For reference, I'm a Mantis. Last, but not least, there's an Inside the Chinese Zodiac feature that talks about your Chinese Zodiac sign -- that is, as long as you're born after 1995. Just subtract 12 year increments from each number and you'll be able to use it. This feature, interestingly, provides a wonderful quotable: "Famous Pigs in History are Ernest Hemingway, Elton John, and Arnold Schwarzenegger".
As a filmlover fond of both martial arts cinema and great animation I had high hopes for Kung Fu Panda when I went to see it in the theaters over the summer -- and, luckily, they were strongly satisfied. There was every possibility in the world that it might've capsized onto itself because of its blend of outlandish ideas and play-it-safe formula, but instead these qualities work out to be several of this DreamWorks picture's many strengths. It's an energetic and aptly-voiced animated narrative, chock full of action, humor, and heart amid its flipping, kicking, petal-to-the-metal Asian essence. Recommendations can't be high enough for this picture, while this strong digital presentation and moderate serving of supplemental features craft a Highly Recommended package out of this Kung Fu Panda / Secrets of the Furious Five two-fer deal.