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Kung Fu Panda - Ultimate Edition of Awesomeness
They say the third time's the charm, and it was for me with Kung Fu Panda as well, a visually stunning, frequently exciting animated movie that just didn't click with me the other two times I watched it. Perhaps I had been too hypnotized into believing, after years of Pixar movies spoiling me, that modern CG animated movie comedy was going to appeal to audiences of all ages, or maybe I just undervalued everything else the movie was bringing to the table, but this time through I found myself finally relaxing and letting the story go where it wanted to instead of wishing the film would get to the meat of the matter sooner. Although I still believe that Kung Fu Panda 2 is one of the rare sequels that improves on the original, this is a top-notch family film with style and wit to spare.
For one thing, the film is gorgeous. Whether one is speaking about the movie's overall computer-generated format or the dazzling "traditionally-animated" (still digital, but) segment that opens the movie, there's hardly a frame of the movie that isn't striking in one way or another. Directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson set each scene in a gorgeous landscape, or inside a grand, ancient temple filled with all sorts of details that would be reason enough to see the movie all on their own. Not only that, but Kung Fu Panda is a lush film, rich and saturated with beautiful, vibrant colors throughout. Between the varying landscapes and wide-ranging palette, each scene in the movie can not only look great, but appear distinct from one another: the emerald greens of a sacred temple, the reds and browns of the Five's dojo, the dark grays and sinister reds of Tai Lung's maximum security prison.
Kung Fu Panda also takes the kung fu very seriously. It would be understandable to wonder how well an animated film about anthropomorphic animals could really capture the electricity of watching a performer like Chan or Sammo Hung perform their action themselves, but there's an understanding to the dynamics of the action, the particular nature of seeing two people jousting that the movie effectively captures, through a mixture of dazzling animation and excellent sound design. The fights make great use of the Five's varying sizes and abilities (especially Viper's snake-like form), as well as Po's elasticity, in ways that mix in with more traditional martial arts action without making the movie's action feel like it's just in service of a joke. Who knew that one of the most kinetic action sequences of the 21st century would be performed by two hands holding chopsticks, in and around a dumpling bowl? The action sequences were supervised by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, and her efforts were rewarded by a promotion: she would go onto direct and co-direct the Kung Fu Panda sequels.
Admittedly, when it comes to the humor, which is mostly centered around Po eating or breaking things, I don't know that I found it much funnier than I did the previous two times I saw the movie, but I did find it less repetitive. Kung Fu Panda's message about turning your weaknesses into strengths while remaining true to yourself is an effective one, and perhaps I just wasn't paying enough attention to the way much of the comedy serves to underline that message. Black's performance as Po can be a little exhausting, but when the movie places big dramatic moments at his feet -- primarily in scenes where he squares off against Hoffman -- he steps up to the plate, with an impressively heartfelt performance that still maintains the anarchic comic spirit that Black is so well-known for. In fact, the whole voice cast is uniformly excellent, making strong impressions even when their overall contributions to the movie are surprisingly brief in retrospect. However, it must be said that even surrounded by all of the star power in the cast, it's James Hong's emotional performance as Mr. Ping that really ties the film together, providing Po with a sincere and sincerely important bit of information at just the right moment.
At some point a couple of years ago, it seems all the studios agreed that the best way to sell DVDs to kids was to simplify the art as much as possible: a colored backdrop, the title, and the face of a main character. The new DVD editions of Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Panda 2 are not quite in line -- the artwork is too zoomed in for a colored backdrop, and there is a red-and-white banner at the top, but the cover here is mostly taken up by Po's face, and his arm, holding a pair of chopsticks which grip a dumpling. The back cover is black with just a single image on it, and the design favors the bonus disc over the old extras. The one major benefit of this set over other Kung Fu Panda DVDs is the presence of an UltraViolet Digital HD copy. Yes, this SD product comes with an HD code, an emerging tactic that 20th Century Fox also used on their recent James Bond collections.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, there's no reason to expect this edition of Kung Fu Panda to look or sound any differently on DVD than other versions, given the original movie is sourced from digital files that are always going to be optimized and can never be "remastered." In general, it looks decent, although my personal feeling is that the precision of digital animation accentuates the limitations of standard definition -- complex details, such as the confetti that rains down after Po is named the Dragon Warrior looks mushy and ill-defined. That said, most of the movie features less intricate design, and the bright colors are rendered vividly. Sound is a key component in martial arts movies, and this exciting 5.1 track does a good job of capturing the energy and excitement of the movie's many kung fu battles, as well as the lovely score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell. French 5.1, Spanish 5.1, English 2.0, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French and Spanish subtitles are all included as well.
All of the extras on the film disc -- a commentary by the directors and five featurettes ("Meet the Cast", "Pushing the Boundaries", "Sound Design", "Mr. Ping's Noodle House", and "How to Use Chopsticks"), as well as some unadvertised ones like a music video -- are all from previous editions of Kung Fu Panda.
Actually, the bonus disc doesn't provide much in the way of new content either: two of the three short films on the disc, Secrets of the Masters (22:58) and Secrets of the Furious Five (24:32) have had individual DVD releases. Two more of the extras, "Mash-Up of Awesomeness: Slo-Mo" (3:05) and "Mash-Up of Blunders" (2:52) are basically just compilation reels.
That leaves three semi-notable extras: a new short film, Secrets of the Scroll (23:13), a glorified trailer for Kung Fu Panda 3 (2:56), and a music video (2:39). As with the other shorts, this is another blend of CG and traditional animation, telling the story of the Furious Five first meeting. When I reviewed the first of these shorts (linked above) on its own DVD, I remarked that it was basically a bonus feature masquerading as a feature. Packaged together with the other two shorts, it feels more at home, and arguably allows the viewer to take more pleasure in what it is than wondering whether or not they got ripped off buying a short for feature film prices.
Let's be fair: the only reason this DVD of Kung Fu Panda exists is to rope in the group of people who have never seen one of these movies before, or never owned one of these movies before. It is hard to believe there are fans so desperate to see the new short film that they would buy these sets for that reason alone, although even if that were the case, they get some nice Digital HD copies out of the deal. If you fall into that limited range of people who either don't have a Blu-ray player or don't want one, and want the movies or anything else contained within the package, then this is a pretty good deal. Recommended
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