½* Image A+ Sound A+ Extras B-
screenplay by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger
directed by Mark Osborne & John Stevenson
by Ian Pugh The generic mediocrity known as DreamWorks' animation department is about eight steps behind the multilayered brilliance of Pixar, and with Kung Fu Panda I think they finally reveal how sore they are about it. Their latest cinematic effort seems like a particularly barbed response to Brad Bird's The Incredibles and Ratatouille: we are told that the way to make something special is simply by believing that it's special. Which, as Bird taught us, means you can apply that label to everything and everyone until nothing and no one is really special. In considering something so blatantly knee-jerk contradictory to his valid points, you have to wonder where, exactly, the belief in an egalitarian society ends and a genuinely destructive jealousy begins. The entirety of Kung Fu Panda strokes the middlebrow ego: the comedy is painfully broad and predictable, while the action sequences are edited into a wild, incomprehensible mess (although I must admit, watching a limbless viper perform complicated martial arts techniques is unexpectedly lovely), and at its core, it's outright insulted by the apparently galling insinuation that talent has an impact on results in any field of endeavour. In an insane attempt to refute that, Kung Fu Panda concludes that it's still better to be fat and lazy than talented and educated.
Po the Panda (voice of Jack Black) plays the part of our fat, lazy outsider, who has long harboured a dream to practise kung fu alongside the Five Masters of the art--Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Monkey (Jackie Chan)--and escape the noodle shop that currently serves as his lot in life. Soon, however, the Masters' own master, red panda Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), is handed a prophecy that villainous snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane, more or less reprising his villainous polar bear from The Golden Compass) will escape from prison, sending Shifu into a frenzy to determine which of his students will be named the legendary Dragon Warrior and save the day. Wacky hijinks assure that Po is gifted with the title of the chosen one, which of course invites the ire of Shifu and his students--and which Po greets with dumb fat-guy antics, blows to the crotch, and clumsy disrespect for everything the Masters represent. But all is forgiven, because while Po may not want to be a hash-slinger for the rest of his life, the fact that he already is a working-class schmo means that his aspirations exist on a higher plane of importance than the ambition, talent, and culture of those elitist scum the Five Masters. As such, Kung Fu Panda is extraordinarily timid in examining the factors that would theoretically prevent anyone from going out and achieving their dreams: it casually sidesteps difficult familial questions involved in Po's adoptive upbringing under wacky goose Mr. Ping (James Hong), who forced a generations-long "noodle dream" on him.
There's a ray of hope in the revelation that Tai Lung is Shifu's son, imprisoned by his adoptive father some twenty years earlier after being denied the title of Dragon Warrior and going ballistic on the townsfolk. That this decision was essentially dictated by Oogway (Randall Duk Kim)--Shifu's own paternal figure, who sensed darkness in young Skywalker (and later anointed Po as the chosen one)--speaks to Philip Larkin's endless cycle of parents handing off their dysfunctions to their kids despite their best intentions. These are fascinating ideas, certainly more interesting than the excessive pie-in-the-sky malarkey that's constantly pushed to the young audience for this movie and countless others like it. Furthermore, they can't have been accidentally reinforced by the potentially-devastating revelation that Tai Lung's betrayal prompted Shifu to remain distant from his adopted daughter, who grew up to become the cold and emotionless Tigress. After about an hour of puerile stupidity, there's an undeniable breath of fresh air in the moment that finds Tai Lung confronting Shifu in a rage, demanding to know where he failed in his bid for his father's pride--only to be met with Shifu's heavy-hearted admission that he was always proud of him. It's also the moment where the filmmakers and the film's inevitable defenders completely lose their right to whine that this is "just" a kids' movie (ah, the lowered expectations we foist upon the little ones!): if you're going to play ball with complex themes like this, you owe it to yourself to not fuck them up.
But fuck them up Kung Fu Panda does, as it gets too scared of alienating its viewers and defers everything to that goddamned panda, whose ultimate answer is to kick Tai Lung's ass (or, it is strongly implied, to kill him) in the name of spoon-fed self-esteem. The Ancient Chinese Secret that serves as Kung Fu Panda's MacGuffin--a golden scroll that only the Dragon Warrior may read--is nothing more than a literal mirror, and you realize that the real problem with movies like this isn't that they're pitching confidence, but that they're pitching narcissism. The film ignores the self-fulfilled prophecies and cycles of betrayal that brought us to this point in time, so to give Tai Lung a level-one lecture on the virtues of believing in yourself feels like cruel hypocrisy, basically stating that the emotional fallout from our familial relationships is to be brushed aside, not actively approached. Po then proceeds to knock Tai Lung's lights out when he refuses to comply, making Kung Fu Panda a logical descendant of Shrek the Third in that both films are willing to murder anyone who doesn't subscribe to their pop-psychology program to a T. It also can't tell the difference between "offbeat" and "stupid," offering the final proof that Jack Black's stream-of-consciousness sputtering buffoon is nothing more than a contemptuous idiot, pretty far removed from the defiant iconoclast pitched at us for the last, what, five years? It's a missed opportunity that the film isn't about Shifu and the trials of his fractured family; instead, we are left with a work of CGI colonialism, as an ignorant oaf is ennobled by the mere impression of his background, invades a culture not his own, breaks their stuff, and is hailed a hero for teaching all them funny li'l backwards people how to properly solve their problems and live their lives.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Although I remained slightly disappointed by Kung Fu Panda's shift to 3-D after a dazzling, anime-influenced 2-D prologue, its aesthetic boasts an attribute one does not normally associate with DreamWorks Animation and for which the Blu-ray format provides an ideal platform: texture. Toning down the artificializing hyperclarity of the studio's previous HiDef offerings (the picture's 'scope aspect ratio--a first for PDI--would seem to correspond with a desire to look more filmlike), the 2.40:1, 1080p transfer is just so incredibly plush. Digital artifacts like banding are miraculously nonexistent and the colours have a breathtaking range within the movie's Easter palette; I can't believe I'm writing these things about a DreamWorks title. Nicely complementing the image, the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is diaphanous, playfully discrete, and perhaps-surprisingly not timid in its deployment of the subwoofer. The goal here truly appears to have been to recreate the theatrical experience at home. Two other tracks grace the feature, the first an exclusive-to-BD trivia stream, the second a commentary with co-directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne; both are pretty tedious, for different reasons. At first I was somewhat engaged by the pop-up factoids--a guide, for all intents and purposes, to the esoteric homages embedded in the film. Once it was revealed that Po's dance moves were modelled on David Brent's from the BBC version of "The Office", though, I started to feel agitated, wondering where the "inspiration" ends and the innovation begins at DreamWorks. The congenial yet patently dull pair of Stevenson and Osborne, meanwhile, treads water almost the whole time; I tried taking notes but kept tuning out.
The remaining supplementary material is similarly disposable, though at least it's uniformly presented in HD. A section called Inside Kung Fu Panda includes "Meet the Cast" (13 mins.), wherein Angelina Jolie says she was relieved when she found out she'd be playing the tiger. (The fact that these films are apparently cast lottery-style is a huge part of the problem.) Far more satisfying despite its offensive, near-subliminal product placements for Hewlett-Packard, "Pushing the Boundaries" (7 mins.) summarizes Kung Fu Panda's unique animation challenges (such as how to balance cloth and fur on the same character), all of which culminated in the complex rope-bridge sequence. Pixar probably figured out half this shit years ago, of course, but it's not like the Colonel was anxious to share his secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices. Lastly, "Conservation International: Help Save Wild Pandas" (2 mins.) finds Jack Black doing his best Jack Black in a pitch for the wildlife fund Team Earth. Po's Power Play is a set-top game that rather irritatingly never gives you a second chance in any of its five tests of your ability to press "enter" on the remote control, while Sounds and Moves of Kung Fu houses--in addition to the ridiculous video for Cee-Lo's pointless cover of "Kung Fu Fighting," lessons in the "Panda Dance" from some woman going by "Hi-Hat," and individual tutorials in the styles of the Furious Five--a brief examination of the sonic-scapes the amazing Ethan Van der Ryn (of King Kong fame) created for the film, "Sound Design" (4 mins.).
Land of the Panda mixes educational video and Java-based content with the self-explanatory "Mr. Ping's Noodle House" (really a demonstration in noodle-making from a chef at Mr. Chow's), "How to Use Chopsticks," "Inside the Chinese Zodiac," "Animals of Kung Fu Panda," and "What Fighting Style Are You?". If you think that sounds extraneous, check out the self-promotional DreamWorks Animation Video Jukebox, which sets clips from past PDI outings to generic pop covers. Trailers for Monsters Vs. Aliens and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa round out the disc and cue up on startup as well. You'll have to spring for the DVD to get the much-hyped bonus short Secrets of the Furious Five, unless of course it's part of the BD Live ephemera I couldn't access with my current set-up. For what it's worth, the cover lists the picture's running time as 88 minutes, but it actually clocks in at 92. Originally published: November 10, 2008.