As an upfront precautionary measure, let me just say that, generally speaking, I’m not much of a Jack Black fan. This inherent contempt for the fellow isn’t based on anything more quantifiable than a sense of annoyance at what I perceive to be chronic unfunniness, but, then again, Black’s film roles are usually that of a bitter schmuck, which just doesn’t do it for me. However, as luck would have it, and in harmony with a film that indulges in the notion of chance-acquired fortune, the voice of Jack Black comes off as pretty likeable in Kung Fu Panda. Obviously, it doesn’t hurt that the film itself is, ultimately, both personable and entertaining, despite a plot that doesn’t rise above a well-worn, formulaic set of clichés. With all the incongruity of a surfing penguin and the dare-to-dream qualities of a bee resisting a life of dronage, Kung Fu Panda doesn’t bring anything new to the children’s animation genre. However, this complaint seems trivial compared to a film that keeps its “awesomeness” well-executed and tightly paced. This is quite the vast accomplishment for a summer blockbuster, for in just 90 minutes, the film delivers an exhilarating set of action sequences and an everyday luminary that the audience can identify with. So, the quintessential slacker puts his chutzpah in motion, and he isn’t such a bad role model after all.
Visually speaking, Kung Fu Panda is pretty damn top-shelf. The film’s look is modelled on Chinese landscapes and associated motifs, and the result is the spectacular stuff we usually get from DreamWorks Animation’s computer-generated features. However, those audience members with old-school sensibilities will find themselves more captivated by the prologue’s hand-drawn, stylized 2-D animation, which evokes the feel of a graphic novel. This particular opening sequence draws us into our protagonist’s dream world, in which he fulfills a legendary status of heroic measure where there is “no match for his bodacity.” By day, this dreamer is the pudgy, awkward panda bear named Po (Black), a worker in a noodle restaurant owned by his father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), who wants his son to follow the family legacy: “We’re noodle people, Po. Broth runs in our veins.” Never mind that Po is the only panda in his village and that his father is a goose, which is a nagging discrepancy that is best forgotten. Po is voiced by Black in full-on “Tenacious D” mode, only minus all the dirty jokes. Oddly, the directors’ decision not to reign in Black’s ostentatiousness actually works in Kung Fu Panda. This comes in sharp contrast to the also effective restraint of Jim Carrey’s persona in the recent Horton Hears A Who picture. Somehow, Po seems to truly embody a kinder, gentler Jack Black, from the panda’s stocky build to his expressively caterpillarlike eyebrows. It’s almost as if the panda’s animation was crafted with the actor in mind.
As the typical fanboy, Po barely holds onto his day job and, at every opportunity, steals away a few moments with his Furious Five action figures. Meanwhile, the village’s enigmatic Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), an ancient turtle, experiences a vision that foretells the prison escape of the vicious snow-leopard Tai Lung (the delightfully villainous Ian McShane). Ooogway determines that the time has arrived for the Millenial ceremony, in which Oogway shall choose the almighty Dragon Warrior, who will rid the village of its threat and restore the valley to peace. Oogway’s meerkat underling, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), has trained a group of kung-fu masters, the Furious Five, in lifelong preparation for this moment. It is presumed that Oogway will select one of them — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), or Monkey (Jackie Chan) — as the one who shall singlehandedly hold the secrets of absolute power. However, due to the last minute perserverance of Po to launch himself into the ceremonial arena as an audience member, he unwittingly lands between Tigress and Oogway’s outstretched finger as he points to the Chosen One. Such is the role of destiny. Po is declared to be the Dragon Warrior and comically carried away, with much effort, for kung fu training. Naturally, the Furious Five are pretty pissed off at this new development and make their scorn of their new colleague (and superior) apparent. One by one, Po’s heroes slam literal and metaphorical doors in his pudgy face as he ironically declares, “Big fan!” As the saying goes, one should never meet one’s heroes.
To say more of the plot would reveal too much, and now, I must ward off a rant about the seeming inability of Hollywood animations to disentangle themselves from the practice of awarding overly pudgy paychecks to celebrities at the expense of proven, albeit lesser-known, voicing talents. To briefly roundup the voice work of the film, Dustin Hoffman and David Cross basically kick some kung fu ass here, and Lucy Liu is kickily competent. As for Seth Rogen and Jackie Chan, they do alright, but I would never have recognized their voices with prior name recognition going into the theater. More disappointing is the voice work of Angelina Jolie, whose articulations fail to communicate her role’s requisite intensity, which can be found in her true physicality and, in particular, the intensity of her impenetrable gaze. Jolie is usually a pretty terrific actress, and she does have voice experience, so it makes sense why she would be cast as the Tigress, but all of that just doesn’t translate to her voice work here, which falls rather flat and seems detached from the efforts of the rest of the cast. Filling out the supporting cast are Commander Vachir (the suitably imposing Michael Clarke Duncan), an overly-confident prison warden, and Zeng (Dan Fogler fulfilling his reputation as the token “human cum-stain”), the bearer of bad tidings messenger.
In the quest for character development, the scriptwriters seem to have needlessly complicated matters with a set of quasi-parallel relationships between Po and his father and that of Master Shifu’s prior encounters with the villainous Ty Lung. Overall, the film’s message — heroes come from unlikely places — is slightly inarticulated through the script. Kung Fu Panda seems to be saying that adults shouldn’t live vicariously through children and push them too forcefully towards specific goals, for kids can fulfill their own potentials through their own volition. The only slight conclusion that I can draw here is probably a result of overthinking, but from the past few generations of coddled youngsters who have been told they can and will one day rule the world, our society seems to have fostered a hell of a lot of lazy underachievers. Instead, Kung Fu Panda seems to favor individual motivation as an indicator of success, but it doesn’t really make the connection of the hard work that rests within motivation and heroic feats. With all of that said, this is an agreeable film that will keep the kiddies entertained and won’t kill the parents, but it has no lasting power beyond the parking lot. Perhaps a bit more of a punch beyond the lightheartedness would give kids some real-life context and provide the film with some lasting power in their minds. Instead, Kung Fu Panda is a lot like Chinese food in that it tastes great and seems adequate at the moment, but ten minutes later, the appetite is wanting for more. Try to suppress your shock when that seven-year old tugs on your sleeve on the way out of the theater because, right now, they really just want to go see the latest Indiana Jones film again.
Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can be found dreaming in graphic-novel style at agentbedhead.com.Chi Factory Toys, Assembly Not Required
Film | June 7, 2008 | Comments ()