Monday, June 30, 2008

Review - Kung Fu Panda

The opening few minutes of
Kung Fu Panda's point towards a different kind of DreamWorks animation, and for a while, the movie delivers on that promise. The company's logo is given a clever Asian-style spin right at the start, and the film utilises that same animation style for the initial sequence, in which a fearless warrior named Po defeats hordes of marauding villains with his kung-fu skills, blinding bystanders with his handsomeness and "awesomeness" in the process. Such antics cannot last, however, and this adventure is quickly revealed as a dream from which Po – a chubby panda with the voice of Jack Black – awakes, plunging him back into the humdrum monotony of his real life. Po lives above his father's noodle shop, in which he reluctantly works and is expected to inherit one day, but all of his dreams revolve around the Furious Five, a group of legendary kung fu masters who train under the tutelage of the wise master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).

For reasons too silly and complicated to get into here, Po finds himself clumsily blundering into a ceremony at which the Dragon Warrior is set to be named. This is a great honour to bestow upon any kung fu fighting animal, and there is much speculation as to which of the five great figures will receive it; would it be Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) or Crane (David Cross)? Perhaps Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) was put off by the unoriginality of their names, and instead he points his withered finger at Po, choosing the hapless panda as the Dragon Warrior and enraging Shifu, who instantly resolves to break Po in an unforgiving training programme.

What follows is standard-issue. Plenty of pratfalls and hi-jinks as Po is pushed to the limit by Shifu's methods, and a gradual sense of self-discovery in which Po finds the wherewithal to challenge the villain of the piece: Ian McShane's Tai Lung. That the film feels as fresh as it does is a pleasant surprise, and it's a credit to the filmmakers Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, who maintain a swift pace and pepper the picture with clever gags, steering clear of the toilet humour and pop-culture references that plague so many films of this type. Instead, the film's jokes are sold on the back of excellent comic timing and a very enjoyable performance from Jack Black in the central role, who finds the perfect tone for Po. Dustin Hoffman is great as well, and Ian McShane is an effective baddie (although I spent most of the film convinced he was Jeremy Irons), but it's a shame the script couldn't find more for the film's big-name cast to do. The Furious Five are a letdown; Jolie seems bored reading her drab dialogue, and I can barely remember any contribution from her colleagues.

They're all superbly designed, though, and throughout
Kung Fu Panda the visual scheme is a constant delight. Stunning animation might be the norm rather than the exception among these big-budget CGI movies, but the levels of detail and beauty on display in the sweeping scenery, facial expressions and inventive set-pieces is still something to behold. In particular, Tai Lung's thrilling escape from jail and his battle with The Furious Five on a rickety rope bridge are smashing pieces of filmmaking in which the dynamic camera and inventive staging work wonders; while Po and Shifu's tussle over a dumpling is a standalone sequence that manages to be exciting and terrifically funny at once.

Kung Fu Panda, then, is a lot of fun, but once it was over, I couldn't escape the nagging feeling that this appealing picture had played it too safe. The film's story sticks rigidly to a tried-and-tested "follow your dream" template, to the point where the plot points and twists feel like they're simply arriving on cue, and every narrative cliché is embraced before the film's close. That, I feel, is the film's fatal flaw, and the one aspect of Kung Fu Panda that prevents it from making a lasting impression. No amount of technical wizardry can make the film's basic skeleton feel like anything more than a retread of a hackneyed theme; and while one can enjoy the film's jokes and inventive touches, it's hard not to feel disappointed that the filmmakers haven't dared to spread their wings a little more. While Pixar continue to break new ground in both animation and storytelling, producing unexpected magic from the most unlikely concepts, and taking risks wherever possible, DreamWorks seems to be stuck in a mindset that links cute talking animals to straightforward stories and simplistic morality. As I said, I had a pretty good time watching Kung Fu Panda, but it is rapidly falling away in my memory, and by the time Pixar's WALL•E arrives on these shores, I fear it will have been long forgotten.