Kung Fu Panda

July 1, 2008

OUT: 4th July

Still looking for a bona-fide animation classic since the dawn of Shrek, Dreamworks fill the voice boxes of a bunch of cuddly (yet deadly) fighting machines with some premier league talent. Jack Black stretches his vocal elasticity to the limit as the unlikely panda chasing dreams of ass-kicking glory, limbering up to face a foe of pure evil… an English one, of course.

Black voices Po, an overweight American panda (in China) being dragged reluctantly into the family noodle business by his father (an emu). Surprise, surprise, not content with inheriting a reputable trade, ungrateful Po wants to master martial arts and join the famed Furious Five- Monkey, Tigress, Crane, Viper and Mantis. The imaginatively named animal ninjas are trained by Dustin Hoffman’s rat-sized Mr Mayagi, Master Shifu, but when ex-pupil gone bad Tai Ling (Deadwood’s Ian McShane) escapes from prison, one must be chosen to read a sacred scroll and become the Dragon Warrior. But disaster strikes when ‘fate’ throws Po into the ring and he is sworn to take the crown, and his skills are less than impressive. Do you follow?

As Disney/Pixar begin to take on new CG creatures like cars, robots and even the odd human, Dreamworks are content to play safe with furry animals with attitude. Kung Fu Panda attempts to unite the quick-on-the-draw surrealism of Madagascar with the fuzzy heart of Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and the like. They’d have been better sticking with the former, as the result is hit and miss. Though the visual comedy is consistently inventive and Black’s performance always a joy, the gag rate isn’t all that high and the eggy moral of self-belief is ancient territory for family film. The first five minutes does set a high bar for humour, but sadly it’s one that isn’t really touched for the remainder.

The originality comes with the setting. The production designer clearly pushed the boat out with this one, and delivers stunning backdrops with this golden opportunity for visual flair. Yet despite the world of Panda being free from the limitations of 2D animation, you’ll still find a richer eastern tapestry in the animation of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke). Stylistically it meets the studio’s own high standards for energy, fluidity and comedy timing.

And therein lies the problem: all the right boxes are ticked, but there’s little else to say about it. The voices are good, the story is sweet and the action entertains, but what it lacks is the power to inspire. As it stands, Kung Fu Panda is a harmless addition to the computer animation roster and an amusing way to kill ninety minutes… not quite bland, not quite brilliant. Perhaps they should try beavers next.


3 / 5   ‘furious’ warriors voiced by American comedy frat-packers   



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