Friday, June 6, 2008

Kung Fu Panda: Panda-monium

Kung Fu Panda (2008) • View trailer for Kung Fu Panda
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and quite pointlessly, for harmless martial-arts mayhem
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.6.08
Buy DVD: Kung Fu Panda • Buy Blu-Ray: Kung Fu Panda (Two Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

The concept is too silly for words, which is precisely the point.

You can't even glance at Po, the corpulent hero of Kung Fu Panda, without laughing.
Shifu (right), the kung fu master, can't imagine how he could ever transform the
corpulent Po into a martial-arts fighting machine ... until an epiphany strikes:
The oversized panda will do anything for food ... and that includes fighting
with impressive skill.

In lesser hands, this film might have gone no further than childish farce. But credit a stable of writers — Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger — for a script that cleverly blends ancient Chinese tradition with American geek culture, and credit directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne for maintaining a snappy pace. (So nice to see a film that gets on the stage, tells its story in an economical 92 minutes, and then gets off.)

Mostly, though, this film owes its success to its gorgeous animation and sublime voice acting.

I mean, really: Dustin Hoffman as Shifu, an itty-bitty critter that happens to be a kung fu master?

The only thing funnier than that is the notion that Oogway, Shifu's master — and the apparent inventor of kung fu — is an ancient, slow-moving tortoise.

Hoffman is notorious for his adherence to "method"; I fondly recall Laurence Olivier's comment, during the filming of Marathon Man, when Hoffman prepared for a particular scene — one that called for his character to look whipped because he hadn't slept for days — by actually not sleeping for two days.

"My dear boy," Olivier is reported to have said, "why don't you just try acting?"

I can't imagine what Hoffman might have done to prepare for this role, but the effort clearly paid off. More crucially, the animators give Shifu's face a wealth of expressions that perfectly match Hoffman's palpable intensity. That all this should emerge in so diminutive a character ... well, that's just icing on the cake.

(Actually, trying to determine Shifu's species is surprisingly difficult in a film where all the other creatures are so easy to identify. He looks like a tiny cross between a possum and a raccoon. Hoffman has claimed, during interviews, that he's "a rare small red panda." Which I guess makes sense.)

The setting is ancient China, more or less, although the country is occupied not by people, but by animals. Ordinary citizens are the more vulnerable forest and barnyard creatures: bunnies, pigs and various birds. Po, the only panda in sight, sticks out like a sore thumb ... all the more because he seems to have been "adopted," at some point in the distant past, by his fussy father, a goose named Mr. Ping (James Hong).

Dad's sole hope in life is that his son will embrace the family calling and become a famous noodle chef.

Poor Po (Jack Black), however, has the mind of an average American male nerd; he collects action figures and inhabits a fantasy world where his bulk does not impede his martial-arts prowess. Indeed, his real-world self-esteem is so low as to be off the chart, which makes Kung Fu Panda a rather droll riff on the ugly duckling fairy tale.

One day, after Oogway has a vision of impending disaster, the temple master insists that it's time to select the fabled "dragon warrior" of prophecy: the one kung fu expert who will be granted the knowledge to become an even more skilled fighter, and save the village from certain doom. Naturally, Shifu expects this honor to fall upon one of his prized students, collectively known as the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) or Monkey (Jackie Chan).

Instead, Oogway's extended finger winds up pointing at Po, after he crashes the ceremony in his typically clumsy fashion.

Shifu and the Furious Five are ... well ... furious.

An overweight panda? With no fighting experience of any kind?

Aside from being an insult to kung fu tradition, Oogway's decision seems daft in the face of the impending threat: Their peaceful valley is about to be invaded by Shifu's former prize student, the treacherous snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), who long ago embraced the dark side of The Force. (Any resemblance to various elements of Star Wars is, no doubt, intentional.)

Po, delighted to simply stay in the palace occupied by these warriors who've been his heroes for so long, takes a few days to absorb the actual enormity of his situation. Then, humbled too many times by Shifu and shunned by the Furious Five, Po finally is forced to accept the inevitable: He is too fat, too clumsy and too mild-mannered.

Black's initially buoyant enthusiasm sags lower than Po's belly.

But then Shifu, shamed by Oogway into being more open-minded, has an epiphany:

The panda will do anything for food.

Suddenly, it's a whole new ball game.

The obligatory training sequence builds to one of the film's funniest and best moments: a superbly choreographed chopsticks-and-dumplings battle between Po and Shifu. The scene runs several minutes, building on itself so audaciously that you can't help being impressed.

For sheer dynamic animation, it's matched only by a battle with far different consequences, earlier in the story, when Tai Lung unexpectedly shatters his "unbreakable" bonds and somehow — impossibly! — escapes the maximum-maximum-security prison that had been built solely to hold him.

This latter sequence also beautifully illustrates this film's clever use of color. Tai Lung, as befits his cold snow leopard form, inhabits a world of icy, evil blue; his captors — a massive herd of armored rhinos — exist in warm warrior red. The backgrounds reflect this duality: Initially, the apparently outmatched Tai Lung occupies a tiny quadrant of blue amid a gigantic cavern of red ... but as the battle progresses, the snow leopard's blue eventually absorbs everything else.

Very tricky.

Black, the original brash, aw-shucks underdog, is the perfect vocal foil for the more fastidious Hoffman; their two characters invariably get on each other's last nerve. McShane, for his part, is wonderfully malevolent as the destructive Tai Lung.

The Furious Five, on the other hand, are something of a disappointment. Not the characters themselves, who wage marvelous martial-arts battles according to their individual creature talents, but the performers granting them speech. Chan is completely wasted as Monkey; you'd never even know it was him. The same is true of Liu, and Cross brings nothing to the party as Crane.

Rogen has one funny scene, as Mantis tries to ease Po's muscle aches via acupuncture, but it's the only time you'll likely recognize his signature smugness. Jolie, while at least giving some presence to Tigress, never gets a chance to broaden her character.

All five have no more personality than their corresponding action figures, which Po cherishes in the film's early scenes, before he meets the real deals.

Indeed, we get far more emotion from two lesser characters: Dan Fogler is hilarious as Zeng, the nervous palace envoy sent to check on Tai Lung's incarceration; and Michael Clarke Duncan brings the appropriate bulk to his performance as Vachir, the too-cocky rhino mastermind behind the supposedly inescapable Chorh-Gom Prison that houses Tai Lung.

Only older viewers will care about such character depth; the younger patrons will be interested solely in the many stylishly staged fight scenes and Po's heroic rise from underbear to ... well, hopefully something more competent. As a result, Kung Fu Panda probably will skew younger than the all-ages Shrek series also masterminded by DreamWorks Animation.

But that's fine. Character dimension notwithstanding, it's impossible not to cheer on a panda hero who prefers almond cookies to bamboo.

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