I quietly dreaded Kung Fu Panda for quite a while. Here was a pretty clever idea, done by DreamWorks animation. DreamWorks doesn’t have a very good track record with animated movies. They typically have big-name stars voicing their movies, a weak story with lazy/sloppy writing, and then market the movies based off the star power (I remember a couple trailers of movies that did this, actually showing the stars in the recording studio instead of showing clips from the movie). Don’t get me wrong, they do make some pretty good movies, but for every Shrek, there are a couple Antz or Shrek the Third's.
And the star power they got for this show pretty much spanned the spectrum of voice talent. Jack Black, good choice. James Hong, excellent without resorting to the A-List. But Lucy Liu as a rather friendly snake? Seth Rogan as a kung fu bug? Jackie Chan doing voice work? In English?
And then there was the Kung Fu Panda licensed game demo on Xbox360. Now, movie-licensed games are typically bad games. You can’t judge a movie based on the game, but you can get some flavor of the movie. And yes, as a game, Kung Fu Panda is pretty ho-hum. Except for the intro. The intro pulled straight from the movie. The movie that instilled more joy in me and pulled more laughter out of me than any movie I’ve seen this year.
Yes, Kung Fu Panda is freakin’ wonderful. I don’t really know where to start. The writing was probably the best part. As Pixar demonstrates over and over again, you have to start with a good script before you make a good movie. The script here has a good, if formulaic story, and the “believe in yourself” message is a bit heavy-handed (although I personally think that this message is one that bears multiple repetitions), but the dialogue is snappy and witty and the story just works. And the acting both by the animators and in the voices, was excellent. The story does have The Furious Five (five “star” fighters) as supporting cast, with the aforementioned Seth Rogan, Lucy Liu, and Jackie Chan among the voices. And other than David Cross, their voices don’t add much (Angelina Jolie was the fifth, but also not that notable). But even with the weak voice acting, it’s less noticeable because the animation acting is so subtle and “real.” And, adding to the excellent animation acting, Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McShane, and yes, James Hong, shine. They more than make up for the mediocre voice work of other people in the cast.
I’m a big fan of kung fu movies, and was a little concerned about how an animated film was going to handle it. Yes, with the recent trend in over-the-top action that the kung fu genre has become, animation is the way to go with it, but I was still a little concerned that the action would appear stiff and contrived. And another no. The action was really on par with most recent movies of its ilk. It’s obvious the action wasn’t choreographed by Woo-ping Yuen, but it’s still a graceful and artistic ballet of violence, one in which it’s easy to forget that the characters are animated (even despite them being animals).
I could go on, but it’s becoming a long post already. This is a must-purchase movie on my list. John’s recommendation: see it.