Sunday, July 27, 2008

Review: Kung Fu Panda (***1/2)

Featuring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and Ian McShane
Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Rated PG for sequences of martial arts action
93 minutes
Kung Fu Panda is a downright hilarious, deliriously beautiful film that should regain the confidence of any former fans of Dreamworks that the company can compete with Pixar. That it is their best work since Shrek 2 is a given. There is one notable difference, though, and it’s a refreshing one: this contains considerably fewer pop-culture references, something that crippled their previous films—most notably, Madagascar.

Po is a rather large panda that has always wanted to become a kung fu master, but his father (who, strangely enough, is a duck; this is never explained) wants him to continue the family business of noodle-making. It’s a respectable enough but boring job that Po simply doesn’t want, but he cannot bring himself to tell his father this. So one day, instead of taking his noodle cart to the town square and selling his product to the people there, he watches from outside the doors as the elder kung fu guru, Oogway, and Master Shifu pick the famed Dragon Warrior from a group of five contestants: a tigress, a crane, a monkey, a praying mantis, and a viper. By happy accident, Po is chosen as the Dragon Warrior to battle and defeat Tai Lung, a villainous tiger who has an unexpected past with Shifu. With the ensuing arrival of Tai Lung, who has recently broken out of prison, Shifu teaches Po…well, nevermind; see the movie to find out.
The voicework here is stunning, with Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McShane, Angelina Jolie, and a strangely underused Jackie Chan giving the kind of depth to their characters that audiences aren’t expecting. Everyone here is superb, especially Black and Hoffman.

The story is charmingly conventional. We know what is going to happen, but we have a great time getting there. Po finally overcomes his fears and is able to defeat Tai Lung. This is expected and is what happens, but it’s how he gets to that point that is so interesting. The fight scenes are spectacular, especially Tai Lung’s escape from a deep underground prison; the lesson learned is memorable, especially in the touching scene when Po’s father gives him an invaluable bit of advice.

But what ultimately earns Kung Fu Panda more than a passing glance is its animation. I don’t think there is a word to describe it. I felt the same sense of wonder during Horton Hears a Who and Happy Feet. Maybe it isn’t so great as to deserve four stars, but it is the closest Dreamworks Animation has gotten to Pixar’s greatness in at least four years.

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