Featuring the voices of: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McShane, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Randall Duk Kim, and James Hong.
Fight Choreography by Rodolphe Guenoden
Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne
Who would’ve thought we would get not one–but two–major American martial arts films in the same year? One a team-up we’ve been waiting for since the name Jet Li and Jackie Chan became synonymous with kick-ass films, the other co-starring Jackie Chan that is an animated love letter to all things kung-fu. Both films are a celebration of kung-fu films past and present, but does Kung Fu Panda succeed?
In a word–well, hell yeah.
The film starts as we meet our hero Po (Black) in fantastic dream sequence that anyone who has ever dreamed of being a kung-fu hero has had (kid or adult). Po is rudely brought back to the real world, where he works in his father’s (Hong) noodle shop. Why his father is a duck is never explained, which leaves this bit of character drama for another film *wink*. Po loves kung fu, but doesn’t know any, and his heroes are the Furious Five, protectors of the Valley of Peace, who represents the animal forms of kung fu: Mantis (Rogen), Tigress (Jolie,), Monkey (Chan), Crane (Cross), and Snake (Liu). They are trained by the greatest kung fu master in the valley, Master Shifu (Hoffman), who in turn is notified by his Master Oogway (Kim) that the kung-fu traitor Tai Lung (McShane) will soon escape his prison.
Of course, in the attempt to make sure this doesn’t happen, Master Shifu inadvertently causes this very thing to come to pass, in a thrilling sequence in which Tai Lung escapes, and so it is said that only thing that can beat Tai Lung is one who can read the dragon scrolls and become the Dragon Warrior. Thus, a tournament is held the next day to find the Dragon Warrior, and Po, eager to go, is saddled with his father’s noodle cart, but is able to make his way into the tournament after a hilarious sequence of failures, and you guessed it, is chosen to become the dragon warrior, much to the chagrin of Master Shifu and the Furious Five. Shifu plans to train Po so hard he quits, but Tai Lung is fastly approaching, and Po is not so easily deterred. Can Po learn Kung Fu in time to save the Valley and become the Dragon Warrior?
The attention to detail is really top-notch here, and the animation is some of the best there is. The colors are bright and joyful, making this a true celebration of martial arts films. The story is fun but is also has–to put it as Bruce Lee would– emotional content. Po’s story is one of believing in oneself, and Master Shifu’s is having faith in others, namely Po and the wisdom of his own Master Oogway, who is my favorite character. His final scene in the film is heartfelt and beautiful, at a point where character, story, music and animation converge to form a scene you’ll remember long after the film is over. We don’t get to spend much time with the Furious Five, but that’s okay. They are awesome, the great fighters Po believes they are, and Tai Lung is an amalgamation of dozens of old school kung fu baddies, and strong enough and evil enough to be a great match for Po, but Tai Lung also has his reasons for wanting the dragon scroll, and some great flashbacks tell his story. There is so many good martial arts lessons that Po and Shifu learn, that is universal across many forms, such as focus, patience, belief in your self and for teachers how to approach teaching from a different perspective, finding something the student can relate to.
The fight scenes are fantastic, perhaps the best being Tai Lung’s escape from Chorh-Gom prison, an exciting scene featuring exploding cave ceilings, Rhinos getting the stuffing beat out of them, and it is here that we actually see background characters getting killed, just to show how large a threat Tai Lung is. The next best fight is part of Po’s training sequence, when he is challenged to a duel with Shifu for the last dumpling, which, like many scenes, is lifted straight from classic kung fu films. Here’s an example:
Kung Fu Panda is a literal love letter to kung fu films. You can tell the filmmakers know and love classic kung fu films. The Furious Five? Straight out of a Shaw brothers film. Po? He may as well be Sammo Hung. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is really an animated late 70’s, early 80’s Sammo Hung film. This film is a bright, colorful celebration of the kung fu film genre, and is not to be missed by those who love it the most.
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best):
CHOREOGRAPHY: (8) Pretty good scenes that sometimes has to be slowed down to view properly, but is extremely well done for am animated feature.
STUNTWORK: (O): Umm…animated feature. Maybe a few animators paper cut themselves.
STAR POWER: (10) Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, so many of today’s stars in this film, a martial arts film of all things!
FINAL GRADE: (10) There is too much fun to be found here, and this is a great film that celebrates all the things we love about the genre, but also manages to tell a great story. This is a fantastic gateway for children into the realm of martial arts and martial arts films!
NEXT: Donnie Yen takes over for Bruce and Jet! Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen!