KUNG FU PANDA (2008) **** Film review by COOP

Posted on June 11th, 2008
Posted on June 11th, 2008

I love martial arts films. Doesn’t matter if you do, you’ll still like this one. It’s got fuzzy animals talking. Jack Black plays a panda and Angelina Jolie, a tiger. Tigress, rather.

I don’t have to convince most of you to see this one. If you have kids, you’re already locked in. It’s an animated film, released in the summer. You can’t avoid it. Here’s the good news: You can stomach this one. It’s way better than “Madagascar.” Dreamworks has equaled the quality of a Pixar animated film. They’ve surpassed the ugly animation of “Sinbad” and “Antz” and made a super high-quality animated film to give “Wall*E” a run for its money this summer.

I didn’t get to go to the premiere on this one. I did, however, get to go to the premiere after-party. My good buddy, David Rosenbaum, “production coordinated” the film. Basically, he helped keep things organized, kept the voice-over actors saying their lines and such. He handed me a glossy ticket that rocketed us right through the front doors. I stopped to shake the hand of some short, balding, yet physically-fit man with glasses standing in the entryway with his wife. He thanked me and mentioned that he didn’t make the premiere because of a Lakers’ game he couldn’t miss. I asked Dave if that was who I thought it was. Dave confirmed my suspicions. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the man who’s 1/3 of Dreamworks, the K in SKG (Spielberg, Katzenberg, Geffen), shook my hand and thanked me for working on his film. Here’s why he wouldn’t know if I hadn’t…

Around 1,300 people showed up for the party. We took over the entire banquet room, dance hall room, lobby and pool area. This is how many people it takes to make an animated movie of this caliber and Dreamworks has to throw a 250 K+ party to celebrate the premiere. Wow. Free food (quality, mind you), a band in the dance room, “Kung Fu Panda” decorations everywhere AND free cocktails. Premium stuff. Katzenberg doesn’t mess around.

I talked to many employees about the film at the party and they gave a general consensus about what I would experience myself later. They asked me, “What did you do on the film?” After clearing up the confusion of why I was there, I asked them what they thought of the finished product. Keep in mind, these are jaded Hollywood folk. I’ve talked to many of these working-class, animation jockeys only to hear them whine and moan about the tedious, potty-joke-filled cartoon they’ve been working on. Instead I heard…

“I loved it.”
“Best animated film I’ve worked on.”
“Best animated film I’ve worked on AND seen.”
“This will win an Oscar” (for best animated film, I presumed).”

After hearing this, I wished I had seen the film with them so I could talk to these creators about scenes and details. Oh, I met one of the two directors of the film. John Stevenson, an English chap, chatted me up for a couple of minutes. I congratulated him on his film and he thanked me. Dave chewed the fat with him about the production and I stood and listened. Stevenson had a serene expression on his face. Not one of triumph, but of relief. I suppose a project that lasts five years (as most animated projects do) can wear you out. No wonder everyone looks exhausted, yet complacent. A feeling of pride for a job well done and a nice soirée and paycheck to show for it. Anyone can relate to that.

I eventually saw the film on opening weekend. Here’s the review…

Po (voice of Jack Black), a lazy panda has dreams of Kung Fu greatness. Too bad he’s an overweight, clumsy oaf, destined to inherit his duck (???) father’s noodle business. While trying to catch a glimpse of a tournament to declare a “Dragon Warrior” champion, Po stumbles into favor with supreme Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) who declares him the Dragon Warrior, much to the bafflement of the “Furious Five:” Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogan), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) and their master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). I later learned the character of Shifu is actually a tiny red panda. I thought he might be a meerkat, or some type of fat weasel, but then I realized there are no meerkats in China and that’d be silly. Po must learn Kung Fu skills fast or die at the hand of the vengeful tiger, Ti Lung (Ian McShane). Ti Lung escaped from prison with the mission of defeating the Dragon Warrior to retrieve the “Dragon Scroll” which holds infinite power, or something like that.

One of the more interesting things I learned is how the crew of “Kung Fu Panda” watched Kung Fu films every day at lunch in the commissary to inspire them. It paid off. One of the more creative points in the film is how terrific and authentic the animated characters look pulling off their skills. I saw nods to films I haven’t seen in years, yet the creators nailed the look, the feel and the effects of Kung Fu Cinema.

As for the characters, the animators observed the facial expressions and movements of the live actors (mostly from other films) to translate those actions to the characters. Po looks and acts like Jack Black. Tigress squints like Angelina… and so on. Jackie Chan says about two lines total. He probably got paid a fortune for that. Wasted talent.

Well done, Dreamworks. Far better animation effort than I’ve ever seen from you guys. Quality work all around, except when the final fight becomes “Clumsy Fu” rather than Kung Fu. Give the main character some dignity, will ya? Not as perfect as Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” but you’re almost there. Also, kudos for the animators who pulled off the stylistic, dream-sequence introduction. It reminded me of the cartoon, “Samurai Jack,” only 100% more visually stunning. Maybe do an animated film in that style. I’ll pay top dollar for that.

4 stars out of 5


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