Jack Black and his esteemed co-stars breathe life into Dreamworks Animation’s 2008 animated feature Kung Fu Panda, which pits the porky protagonist against a vengeful adversary with lethal skills in martial arts. Po the panda lackadaisically waits tables in his father’s restaurant, dispensing bowls of noodles with as much enthusiasm as a prisoner marking off the days on the wall of this cell. Po’s father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), cannot imagine his son’s wanting to do anything else, but the hopeful panda has grand ambitions of being a kung fu master. When the rogue fighter Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes from a remote mountain prison, Po just might get his chance when he is unexpectedly and inexplicably chosen as the legendary “Dragon Warrior.” But will he be ready?
In this movie, the denizens of China’s Valley of Peace are all animals. The grand master is a geriatric tortoise named Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), whose second in command is a diminutive red panda named Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Po’s father, Mr. Ping, is a duck. The so-called Furious Five, who marginally assist in Po’s training, are simply Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen) and Crane (David Cross). They demonstrate how their unique physiognomy perfectly matches their individual styles of kung fu. Much of the humor is physical, and watching a human being pummeled and paddled while undergoing the rigors of martial arts training just would not be funny as seeing the same happen to a pudgy panda. At the same time, the audience knows that while Po may be smarting from his ordeal, no serious harm will come to him. But as his showdown with the vicious Tai Lung approaches, viewers may question this assumption.
This latter point brings up the film’s PG rating. Tai Lung, a snow leopard who embodies all of a predator’s speed and ferocity, is one scary character. Especially bewildering is the lightning dispatch with which he escapes from his confinement, foiling the 1,000 armed rhinoceros guards surrounding him. That and a couple of slightly risqué references assure that Kung Fu Panda does not get slapped with the dreaded G designation.
Shifu bears more than a coincidental resemblance to Yoda from the Star Wars films. Both are physically puny characters who do not look like they could harm a fly, but each is devastating in his own right -one a kung fu master, the other a Jedi master. Although Shifu lacks the funny voice and strange grammatical constructions of Yoda, the parallels are obvious. And Master Oogway, particularly in one scene, is reminiscent of Obi Wan Kenobi.
The DVD is overflowing with extras; so many, in fact, that collectively they rival or even surpass the length of the entire movie, one hour and 28 minutes. The interviews with the cast and crew reveal true enthusiasm for the project, evidenced in part by how Black gestures, sways and bounces while voicing Po. Seeing the faces behind the characters spoils some of the mystique, but at the same time takes the appreciation of the film to a new level, especially when one considers all of the technical aspects that are usually taken for granted. Another segment introduces the sound crew, pairing scenes of the technicians actually creating the auditory effects with the matching shots from the movie. One hilarious scene shows a man pulling a plunger off of the head of a bald co-worker as Po plucks a pair of soup bowls off of his chest!
Gastronomes will no doubt delight in Mr. Ping’s Noodle House, in which Iron Chef America host Alton Brown goes behind the scenes in an upscale Chinese restaurant to show how the chef turns an amorphous blob of dough into a batch of delectable soup noodles. The initial maneuvers resemble the pizza-making process, but in the short space of a couple of minutes, the chef spins, turns and twists the coagulant lump into dozens of doughy strings, which he deftly trims down to size and deposits in a waiting pot.
Also included on the DVD is an interactive game called Master Shifu’s Dragon Warrior Training Academy, which features a different challenge from each member of the Furious Five, with which users can test their hand-eye coordination.
The soundtrack for this movie is first class, although the theme song, a reprisal of the 1974 hit song Kung Fu Fighting, does not play until the credits are rolling. The updated lyrics, also written by original artist Carl Douglas, are slightly different, but every bit as good. The music video on the DVD, performed by Black and Cee-Lo Green, is not to be missed. The choreography is also excellent.
People who habitually watch all of the credits at the end of a film will be satisfied with a brief, final scene that serves as a simple, elegant summation. It does not retroactively alter anything in the film, but is just a nice way to cap off a truly enjoyable film. Children and adults both will like Kung Fu Panda, which deserves three out of four stars.