Movie Review: "Kung Fu Panda"--ReFocus

8/05/2010 Posted by Admin

Movie Review: Refocus

"Kung Fu Panda"

By our guest blogger, John Shannon


Editor's note: With new movies coming out every Friday, new DVDs every Tuesday, and nearly a hundred years worth of film history to draw from, it’s easy for some titles to get lost in the shuffle. “ReFocus” is a weekly column detailing a film that for one reason or another deserves revisiting. Whether it’s simply providing further context or taking a second look at a misplaced classic, we’re here to continue the conversation and give films their proper view.

This week…

"Kung Fu Panda"

In modern animation, the two biggest studios right now are PIXAR and DreamWorks. In the past, I’ve alleged that picking a favorite PIXAR movie would be like picking a favorite child; they’re all such incredible films, and classics in their own right. PIXAR goes the extra mile with every one of their movies, refusing to sell out to the lowest common denominator. They move from film to film, challenging themselves and doing something new each time.

Meanwhile, we have DreamWorks, who goes in the opposite direction. They had their first big hit with "Shrek," and have followed that mold to a tee. Pop culture references, sight gags, more jokes than actual plot, and celebrity stunt casting. Movies such as "Over The Hedge" and "Madagascar" are funny upon their first viewing, but they aren’t layered, challenging or even really relevant a few years down the line. The real risk of pop culture references is that after a few years removed, none of the jokes make much sense. The comparison between the two studios could be simplified to this--PIXAR makes films, and DreamWorks makes movies.

In the summer of 2008, DreamWorks and PIXAR both released their tent pole pictures in June. And while "Kung Fu Panda" came out first and did some great business, "WALL-E" came out a few weeks later and just blew everyone away. Leading up to awards season, it’s all anyone talked about. The public fell in love with "WALL-E" and it was certainly expected to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

But then the Annie Awards (the awards ceremony for animated films) were held, and "Kung Fu Panda" cleaned house. The flick swept everything right out from under "WALL-E"’s treads.

"Panda" tells the tale of Po (voiced by Jack Black), who spends his time daydreaming about being a martial arts hero when he's not working for his father (James Hong) making and serving noodle soup. Meanwhile, at a nearby temple, the head monk, Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), has had a vision that the power-mad Tai Lung (Ian McShane) will escape from prison and ravage the Valley in his quest for dominance. To stop this, Oogway must discern the one who deserves to become the Dragon Warrior.

There are five obvious candidates, all apprentices to Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman)--Monkey (Jackie Chan), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) and Mantis (Seth Rogen). Yet, as the result of a seemingly random series of events, Oogway chooses Po. This comes as a surprise not only to an outraged Shifu but to his pupils as well. The thought of Po confronting Tai Lung is laughable since the fat panda has trouble making it to the top of the temple's stairs. But soon, hidden talents and hidden pasts are revealed, and it all boils down to a story about people seeing their shortcomings and paying for past mistakes.

The film--somewhat miraculously considering the studio--contains no pop culture references, but tells a complete story in its own separate universe. There aren’t any “wink wink, nudge nudge” moments. The filmmakers treat the story and the world respectfully, and we feel Tai Lung as an actual threat and the characters as real people.

I’ve always liked Jack Black. He seems like an actor who isn’t trying to build a career or move from comedy to drama, but rather a talented guy who just does the movies he wants to do. He never seems bored or tired in any of his films, and at press junkets and events, he’s always excited to be there.

For this film, he dials down his manic persona just enough to come across as enthusiastic but not annoyingly so. The opening sequence perfectly captures his geeky admiration of heroes and as the story moves forward, he gives Po a vulnerability not too many lead characters in animated films have. He knows his shortcomings, and he knows that no one really has much faith in him, so why should he? If Po has a fatal flaw, it’s that he is self-aware. He states aloud “I eat when I’m upset,” and even uses it as a “So, what?” deflective statement. He knows what his problem is, but never got kicked in the ass hard enough to really do anything about it.

And now for the flip side of that coin. Tai Lung is probably one of the best villains in recent memory. He is only in a handful of scenes, but his presence is felt like the Joker in "The Dark Knight" or Scar in "The Lion King." And when he is onscreen, you can’t take your eyes of him. His prison escape sequence is one of the best animated sequences in recent memory, setting him up as a force to be reckoned with and illustrating the type of action scene that can only be realized using animation.

Once his back story is revealed, we see him as the person who was driven, who was told that he would be great, and who was kicked in the ass to do the best he could every day. To give 300 percent. And when all he strove for was denied him, and the person pushing him so hard and so far for so long just turned away and gave up on him, he snapped. And we empathize with him. He was robbed of all meaning. Who wouldn’t lose it? Ian McShane gives him anger and menace but also a real pain beneath it all. His ultimate motivation isn’t the power of the Dragon Warrior, but to make those that turned their backs on him suffer.

And that is Shifu’s shame. He gave Tai Lung the training and the dream, and loved him too much to see what was happening, and when Tai Lung snapped, Shi Fu saw the monster he had created, and vowed never to do so again. He keeps all of his pupils at arm's length, and can barely meditate for his conscience won’t let him. Dustin Hoffman brings a great sense of guilt and remorse to Shifu’s voice, but a stern authority as well. When he finally breaks down and lets Po in, it’s a victory for both of them, and his final confrontation with Tai Lung is just so raw, it’s easily my favorite scene in the film.

If there’s any pitfall the movie falls into, it’s DreamWorks' constant need to cast their films with celebrities. Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen, David Cross and Michal Clarke Duncan probably have les then 30 lines between them, and casting Jackie Chan as the monkey who has, literally, two lines is almost insulting. Why get these assorted A- and B-list celebrities for two days in the studio when there are several talented (and cheaper) voice actors looking for work?

Where the casting really shines is with the two least-known supporting actors, James Hong and Randall Duk Kim. Hong plays Po’s father with just the right amount of aloof and care, and the movie never bothers to tell us how a duck fathers a panda. And I honestly don’t care to know. The two have a real bond and a great give and take that works perfectly. Randall Duk Kim assays Oogway in such a way that rivals the greatest screen mentor of al time--Master Yoda. Oogway will easily become your favorite turtle, I can promise you that at least. And he not only cooks up my favorite line of the film, he also has one of the most graceful, accepting deaths in cinema. If only we could all go the way he does.

The film’s story certainly takes several influences from the story of "Star Wars," but the art direction, color palette, camera work and editing all take cues from Chinese culture and their films. Crafted with beautiful watercolors and scored with a Chinese influence, the movie rivals "Mulan" in terms of sheer reverence to China. It’s all splendidly rendered, and I highly recommend a high-def download or Blu-ray purchase if you have the means. But even in standard definition, this movie is just plain beautiful.

The camera work and animation deserve a special shout out. Characters are constantly moving, whether fighting or just in the background, but it isn’t to draw attention to itself or anything of that nature. It is all character-based movement, and the camera moves where no live-action camera could ever go to capture all of it with grace and style. These camera movements are the kinds that Robert Zemeckis is trying to realize with his motion-capture experiments, and I almost wish he would just do an animated feature and get it out of his system. But that’s another rant that will be saved for another time.

Bottom line, “Kung Fu Panda” broke the mold, escaping the mediocrity of DreamWorks’ usual output and is something special. It isn’t a masterpiece or a classic, but it is a fine movie, and a fun viewing for the young at heart.

What do you think? Half the fun is getting in on the conversation, so sound off in the comments below. Whether you agree or disagree your opinion is welcome, and we’d love to hear it.

John Shannon can be reached at refocusjohn@gmail.com

Next week on ReFocus: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

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3 comments:

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