Saturday, June 7, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

I have loved martial arts movies since I was a kid, back in the days when the TV series Kung Fu was still on the air and Bruce Lee was still alive. I have loved animated movies since I was a kid, too. For that reason it was a safe bet I would to see Kung Fu Panda.

Fortunately, Kung Fu Panda did not prove to be a disappointment. Kung Fu Panda focuses on Po, a panda and the son of a noodle cook in ancient China who nonetheless wants to be a kung fu hero. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, as the case may be). Po soon finds himself chosen as the Dragon Warrior, the chosen hero who must defend the valley against the rogue kung fu fighter Tai Lung.

Although Kung Fu Panda is a comedy and an animated movie, it plays out very much like a traditional kung fu movie. In fact, rather than being a parody of the genre, I would instead say that it is a comedy in the genre, not unlike those made by Jackie Chan (who provides the voice of Monkey of the Furious Five). In fact, I must point out that the role of ordinary bloke suddenly forced into the role of hero is a recurring theme in Jackie Chan's movies. That is not the only cliche of the kung fu genre included in the film, as Kung Fu Panda includes more cliches that could be found in any number of Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest films. What is more, almost all of the kung fu moves featured in the film are authentic, albeit modified slightly for the various animal characters. Even the Dreamworks logo at the beginning is remniscent of both the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest logos! Kung Fu Panda is hardly a parody of martial arts films. Instead, it is very much a homage.

Beyond being a well written, loving homage to the kung fu movies of old, Kung Fu Panda benefits from one of the best voice casts of any animated movie. Jack Black is suitably cast as Po, the lazy, overweight panda who soon finds himself out of his element. The Furious Five, the five champions of the valley, are also well cast, with Jackie Chan as Monkey, David Cross as Crane, Angelina Jolie as Tigress, Lucy Liu as Viper, and Seth Rogen as Mantis (my favourite of Five). Beyond Black, however, the best performances may belong to the masters of the monastery and the villain of the piece. Randall Duk Kim gives a solid performance as Oogway, the ancient turtle who is the head master of the monastery and invented kung fu. Dustin Hoffman does well as Shifu, the master of the Furious Five and Po's master. In fact, sadly, I think this may be one of Hoffman's best performances in years. Last, but hardly not least, Ian McShane does a great job as Tai Lung, the traitorous kung fu warrior bent on the destruction of both the monastery and the valley. McShane simply seems to have been born to play villains.

Of course, what also makes Kung Fu Panda so enjoyable is its top of the line animation. Dreamworks is in top form with this film. Between the excellent realisation of the characters on screen and the vocal performances, it is sometimes easy to forget that these animated, talking animals are not real. The film also features some truly great action scenes. Many of the battles and, in particular, an extended sequence involving Tai Lung (you'll know it when you see it) are simply astounding.

The plot of Kung Fu Panda will be familiar to anyone who has watched more than his or her fair share of martial arts movies. While this might seem like a flaw, it hardly detracts from the movie. Kung Fu Panda more than makes up for this with a well written story, great vocal performances, fantastic animation, some exceptional action scenes, and plenty of very funny comedy that involves everything from visual references to the kung fu movies of old to outright slapstick. This is simply one fun movie.

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