looking for this year's animated classic, a feature that will measure
up to last year's “Ratatouille” (“...Best film of 2007!” - D. Hill,
Franklin Journal), you should check out “Kung Fu Panda,” which is a
stupid-sounding title for a surprisingly endearing movie. It's not
“Ratatouille,” but it'll do till the next “Ratatouille” gets here.
Although it will take some doing for anyone to equal
the adventures of the superstar rat chef, “Kung Fu Panda” offers some
of the same lessons about perseverance and self-esteem, and also
several key scenes in which professional cooking plays an important
Because, you see, Po is a pudgy panda who works in
his father's noodle restaurant in the Peaceful Valley in ancient China.
Po's father, Mr. Ping (“We are noodle folk! Broth runs through our
veins!”), is a goose, which works because this is a fairy tale. It's
also a running joke – Mr. Ping keeps wanting to tell Po a secret, and
we keep thinking he'll tell the panda he's adopted. But no, it's
another secret entirely, and they remain firmly father and son.
Unfortunately, instead of having the Noodle Dream,
Po (voiced by an ingratiatingly self-effacing Jack Black) fantasizes
about being a great kung fu warrior, and idolizes the Furious Five:
Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan),
Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). The Five train at the local
mountain-top monastery with Master Shifu, who is possibly a small fox
and who looks like Yoda, but thankfully (because it's Dustin Hoffman)
does not talk like Yoda.
When the monastery's abbot, the tortoise Oogway
(Randall Duk Kim), has a premonition that the brutal snow-leopard
warrior Tai Lung will escape from prison and return to menace the
Valley of Peace, he dispatches a messenger (another goose!) to tell the
thousand rhinoceros guards to beef up security. He then announces a
ceremony to choose the Dragon Warrior who will defend the valley.
I don't need to tell you that, by a set of curious
chances, Po the Panda ends up being chosen as the Dragon Warrior, and
spends a long and grueling sequence trying to persuade himself, his
trainer, and his idols that he's up to it. (The way he slices radishes
enters into the training.)
Does he confront Tai Lung? Does he defeat him? What
do YOU think?
That's a no-brainer, because this narrative proceeds
in the straight line of the simplest of nursery stories, with no
deviation from the dramatic arc (can a dramatic arc be a straight
line?), and with all the familiar details (I almost wrote clichés)
firmly in place.
At the screening I went to, a four-year-old who was
having no trouble following the story kept yelling “THAT WAS FUNNY!” It
didn't bother me, because the kid was right. The humor is a great part
of the movie's charm, because there's enough slapstick for the little
kids and enough wit for the grownups.
And some odd quotations – there's a frame where we
look deep into Tai Lung's eyes, and I gasped, because looking out at us
was Jean Marais as the beast in Cocteau's 1946 “La Belle et la bête.”
Go see it and tell me if I'm wrong. I think it's an hommage. Or maybe a
The other thing that will fascinate kids and enchant
their parents is the whole look of the film. From “Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon” up through “Hero” we've become increasingly ravished by
the sensuous beauty of the art direction in live-action Chinese martial
arts films. “Kung Fu Panda” translates the look, in its own way, to
DreamWorks' computerized animation. Raymond Zibach, the production
designer, has taken the Chinese landscape, which in real life often
looks just like a scroll-painting, and stretched and exaggerated it
only slightly to fit the fairy-tale proportions. And he's boosted the
intensity of the colors to match the cartoon quality, but it also comes
close to the vibrancy of contemporary Chinese painting, of which we've
been fortunate to have some local exhibits.
Just as Pixar animation has developed a recognizable
style, the DreamWorks animation is unmistakable. Remember the cute
forest creatures in the “Shrek” movies? They're back, as the villagers
of the Peaceful Valley, and they're adorable. They have the same
slightly angular silhouettes, but the DreamWorks animators are getting
better and better at giving them rounded, three-dimensional contours.
(And you might not mention to your own four-year-old
that the villagers are chiefly pigs, rabbits and waterfowl, which in
any era of Chinese history would end up in Mr. Ping's noodle broth,
along with some ginger root and scallions and star anise.)
Some people have questioned the violence in “Kung Fu
Panda.” The training and combat scenes are indeed very exciting, and
may make little kids want to whirl and fly and kick and punch. My
thought is that it's a cartoon, for crying out loud. I grew up on
Looney Tunes and I didn't turn into a psychopath, because at a very
early age my mom explained to me the difference between Elmer Fudd's
shotgun and the real thing. I assume you're doing the same with your
By the way, the closing credits are done with
beautiful artwork throughout, and you might as well sit there and watch
them, because the movie isn't over until the very, VERY end. I always
stay just so you'll know.