They Know Kung Fu

by Ian T. McFarland on June 6, 2008

in Movie Reviews 

  • Title: Kung Fu Panda
  • IMDB: link

The makers of Kung Fu Panda could have gone about their job a lot of different ways.  They could have made a send-up of the Kung Fu genre in line with what Shrek has done to fairy tales, or they could have given us a totally neutered beast with cartoon violence a la Wyle E. Coyote.  Thankfully they chose neither, and elected instead to make the most bad-ass Kung Fu movie allowed the Computer Animation genre today.

Po is a humble, walking and talking Panda Bear whose dreams for Martial Arts super stardom are held back by his father’s noodle shop that occupies his time, and the extra hundred pounds hanging off of his belly.  But when he accidentally falls into the ceremony held to name the oft-anticipated prodigy Dragon Warrior, he stumbles into destiny as an ancient turtle grandmaster of the art, Oogway, gives the title to the reluctant and obese bear.

Despite having a protagonist whose main characteristic is being fat, the movie isn’t dedicated to going for the joke (or at least not as much as most other entrants in the genre).  Instead, directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson focus on giving us the spirit of a traditional kung fu movie.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not 88 minutes of pure acrobatic free-for-all battles to the death; but everything from the moral to the characters scream devotion to the art.  Especially effective is the master, Oogway, who speaks like a Buddhist Zen Master and despite his age, moves with the grace of a Lotus in a gentle breeze.
The action is surprisingly badass.  I can’t think of any other animated film outside of The Incredibles that so easily and successfully translates the excitement of a dire showdown to the format.  But come to think of it, isn’t a medium that outputs perfection so easily like computer animation perfect for an art that oozes nimble but fierce elegance?

There’s also strong cast at work here.  Jack Black could have bordered on irritating as the titular character, but comes off as sincere and modest.  Seth Rogen gets in one truly hilarious line; but perhaps the strongest asset of the cast is Dustin Hoffman as Po’s Red Panda Kung Fu master.  He exudes a gravelly voice (totally unlike his own) so overly-dramatic, I was convinced his character was voiced by the voice narrator for all of those movie trailers.  You know, the guy who always starts out by saying “In a world . . .”

It comes together to form what could very easily be a child’s introduction to the common PG-13 action blockbuster.  It’s got enough action, humor and decent story telling to hold anyone’s attention, while still getting you excited for the final showdown.  It’s not astoundingly good, but given it’s a non-Pixar U.S.-animated feature, it’s certainly good enough.

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