KUNG FU PANDA – DVD review

Note: In the following joint review, John and Jason provide their opinions of the movie, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
Penguins are big. Pandas are bigger.

DreamWorks rode the penguin bandwagon a few years back in their animated movie “Madagascar,” and I’m sure somebody involved with the present film thought, Hey, how about we do it again as “Kung Fu Penguin”? Then, cooler heads probably prevailed, and somebody else must have said, Well, giant pandas are just as cute and cuddly as penguins, and they’re much bigger and more ungainly looking, which would make for a pretty cute situation; plus, they’re native to China, where the whole kung fu thing sprang up. So, penguins notwithstanding, the panda may have seemed a natural. Truth to tell, it is a pretty cute idea, and while 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda” cannot stand up to the best animated movies from Pixar in terms of plot or characters, it is still a pretty good entry in the cute, animated, family-oriented movie genre. Meaning kids will love it.

That’s the problem, though. Kids will love it, but this adult didn’t, at least not entirely. What the movie’s got going for it above all is its look. “Kung Fu Panda” is one of the most stunningly beautiful CGI creations I’ve ever seen. It’s just that beyond the ravishing CGI graphics, there isn’t much substance to the movie.

DreamWorks assembled a high-profile voice cast, then gave them little to do. The star is Jack Black as the voice of Po, a clumsy, rotund panda who daydreams of being a kung fu hero. Instead, he works in a noodle shop in ancient China, a place where there are no humans, only animal characters living in the lovely Chinese buildings. The problem with Black is that while he can be a very funny fellow in person, he really doesn’t have a particularly distinctive voice. He sounds a lot like your next-door neighbor, which doesn’t exactly heighten one’s listening pleasure.

Po’s heroes in his real life are the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Viper (Lucy Liu). The problem here is that none of the characters gets to say more than a few words. If you didn’t see Jolie’s or Chan’s or Rogen’s names listed in the credits, you might just miss them altogether. Oh, you might go, “Hey, that sounded like Jackie Chan,” but you’d forget about it a minute later because his character doesn’t have anything more to say for another quarter of an hour.

Then, there’s Dustin Hoffman as Shifu, a diminutive kung fu master in the Yoda vein. Indeed, the story and characters in “Kung Fu Panda” owe a lot to “Star Wars,” so be aware of it. Hoffman does have more than a few lines, and, unlike Black, he has a distinctive enough voice to carry him through.

As always, though, the most interesting character is the villain, in this case an evil Siberian tiger named Tai Lung, voiced with his usual menacing inflections by Ian McShane. Shifu raised and trained Tai Lung to be the ultimate Dragon Warrior, but Tai turned to the Dark Side and betrayed his old master. After being captured and imprisoned for twenty years, Tai Lung escapes and vows to return to Shifu’s valley and wreak revenge upon everyone living there.

What’s a valley to do? The leader of all the creatures in the valley is the all-wise, all-knowing Master Oogway (Randal Duk Kim), who picks a new Dragon Warrior to defeat Tai Lung. Master Oogway picks Po; yes, Po, who can hardly get out of bed in the morning he’s so flabby. Master Oogway calls it destiny. Most of us would call it luck.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t find much more to the plot than that. Shifu has to train Po to become a king fu warrior, which he does miraculously in about a day, thanks to a “secret ingredient,” and Po confronts Tai Lung in a climactic battle. There’s hardly anything more to it. Clearly, the filmmakers spent a ton of money on the voice talent and the animation, and they forgot the script. OK, they forgot about a story that might appeal to adults as well as children. For children, especially the youngest of children, the story is simple enough to follow and the characters simple enough to appreciate that the film is sure to go over well. So, for young kids, the movie is great. For me, it was something of a chore. If it weren’t for the glorious graphics, I might have given up on the film entirely. Fortunately, the imagery is so lovely to look at, it kept my attention through the sheer force of its aesthetic appeal alone.

In addition, I didn’t find much in the film that was funny. I mean, I’m sure the filmmakers intended the movie to be a comedy, after all. Yet beyond a couple of shrewd touches (like Po is a Panda but his dad is a goose, a discrepancy he never seems to notice. It reminded me of Steve Martin in “The Jerk,” where his parents were black, and it never occurred to him to question the matter). Mostly, though, “Kung Fu Panda” relies on the delightful appearance of its characters, the sounds of its voice cast, and the brilliance of its CGI animation to help it succeed. If that’s enough for you, the film should measure up quite well.

John’s Film Rating: 6/10.

The Film According to Jason:
Armed with an A-list voice talent cast headed by Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and Angelina Jolie, “Kung Fu Panda” was the first true family movie of the summer, and it would hold that distinction until the release of Disney-Pixar’s “Wall-E.” It was not because Black and company didn’t have a serviceable enough script to work with. It was not even due to an, at times, obtuse message. It came down to being a DreamWorks film and not a Pixar film.

Po the Panda (Black) has one dream: to be the Dragon Warrior, mythical kung fu master who will keep the Valley of Peace safe from a repeat attack from Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a disgruntled former student who is now locked up by rhinos. However, Po seems destined to serve noodles for the rest of his life until he is picked by Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) as the Dragon Warrior. Now he must learn kung fu with the help of Shifu (Hoffman) and a band of animal kung fu experts before Tai Lung returns.

“Kung Fu Panda” is a good-looking fun ride, yet it’s missing something. (No, not the Pixar name, but that might have something to do with it in the final analysis.) With extensive plot buildup about Po’s status as the Dragon Warrior, the script never allows us to see his training in total, only in an all-too-brief montage in the film’s middle. There’s no sense of accomplishment, following the collection of scenes, when Po is able to hold his own–more or less–in the kung fu style. He’s an oaf beforehand and suddenly transforms into something bigger, something better. We’re missing at least a handful of scenes which delve deep into the training and what exactly Master Shifu puts him through to get to the final point.

Also, the other kung fu practitioners, the Furious Five as they are called, get precious little screen time to actually develop into something other than stock characters dropped into the movie to create the illusion of depth. Granted, this is a children’s movie, and to expect characterization on a broad scale might be foolhardy. One only has to point to other films (i.e., Pixar) in which the secondary characters are, at the very least, given an opportunity to be actual people. Tigress (Jolie) is the only one with any semblance of development in the context of Monkey, Mantis, Viper, and Crane (yep, genius names, aren’t they?).

Then there’s a little matter of the oversimplified “secret” of a Dragon Scroll, a piece of writing given to the Dragon Warrior in order to unlock limitless power. I won’t spoil it here to preserve the surprise, but suffice to say it feeds right into the kiddie genre that “Kung Fu Panda” so desperately wants to fit into. The difference between this moral and the one about friends in either “Toy Story” movie (or the virtues of telling the truth in “A Bug’s Life,” among others) is it’s so cheeky, so insatiably cute, it doesn’t fit the rest of the film. “Panda” isn’t filled with snarky sarcasm like “Shrek” nor does it give enough humor to the adults in the audience. And that will turn out to be its greatest failing.

For what it’s worth, “Shark Tale” (another DreamWorks production) contained enough inside jokes for the adults while remaining a fun ride for the kids. “Shrek” and all its sequels succeeded because of the dual audiences it appealed to. Same goes for every single Pixar film. “Kung Fu Panda” doesn’t. Filled with animals of all stripes, there are two action set pieces that might appeal to the adults along with the who’s who of voice talent, yet there’s very little else outside of kiddie humor.

About those two action pieces: the first brings to mind shades of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and is truly wonderful to behold. Six different animals fight each other high above the clouds, each using an attribute particular to their namesake. The second piece, at the end of the film, is reminiscent of the “TMNT” animated movie from a year or two back. Shrouded in darkness, colors jump off the screen during the battle, with characters flinging themselves into the air, across the temple, and into one another. The lights go out, and Tai Lung is bathed in an electric blue light, giving him an eerie glow…an evil, eerie glow.

If it sounds like “Kung Fu Panda” isn’t an enjoyable little romp, let me explain. It is fun. It is inoffensive. It is amusing and thrilling and all those other things. There’s just not a whole lot to the finished picture. With only eighty-eight minutes under its belt, extra time could have been devoted to fleshing out each of the Furious Five just a little bit more. Who were they beforehand? How did they all get involved with kung fu? Why are we only given a couple of minutes in the prison where Tai Lung is being held, not to mention precious little time with the stubborn rhinos (headed by Michael Clarke Duncan) in charge of keeping him subdued? “Ratatouille” was able to introduce myriad characters in an adult plotline and came in at nearly a half hour longer than “Kung Fu Panda.” What’s the problem here?

It all comes back to the studio producing it. Pixar has, in every film they’ve made, taken the time necessary to create a complete world for the characters to play in (not to mention real people instead of plot pawns). “Kung Fu Panda” feels rushed, as if designed for optimal play times per day as opposed to a solid story.

Maybe with time “Kung Fu Panda” will go down as a quality piece of family entertainment. Fun, but ultimately empty.

Jason’s Film Rating: 6/10.

Video:
Upscaled through my Toshiba A35 player, the 2.35:1 ratio, anamorphic picture looks terrific. Colors are deep and rich and robust; definition is precise; black levels are solid; shadow detail and contrasts are superior. About the only time you can tell the picture isn’t perfect is when you compare it side-by-side to its Blu-ray counterpart, and then it looks a tad softer, fuzzier, and grittier. But that may be an unfair comparison, as the BD version of the movie is one of the best things I’ve ever seen in high definition. Let’s just say that no one will be displeased with the standard-def image quality.

Audio:
The sound in English comes in Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1. Obviously, I listened in DD 5.1, which was exemplary. It has depth, breadth, power, range, and impact, with a fine sense of surround activity throughout. Again, in direct comparison to the Blu-ray disc’s lossless TrueHD, it seems a little brighter and harder, but without the comparison, a person would never notice. Like the video, the audio is very good.

Extras:
DreamWorks are offering “Kung Fu Panda” in a variety of different configurations. There’s a single-disc, high-definition Blu-ray edition; a single-disc, standard-definition widescreen edition; a single-disc, standard-definition full-screen edition; and wide and full-screen standard-def editions specially packaged with a direct-to-video sequel, “Secrets of the Furious Five.” The set reviewed here is the SD widescreen version with the extra movie. The two movies come in separate keep cases, by the way, and come that way for reasons known only to the inscrutable minds of the DW promotional team.

Kung Fu Panda:
Beginning with the “Kung Fu Panda” disc, we get a series of bonus materials. First up, there’s a filmmakers’ commentary with directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne. Following that is a thirteen-minute promo, “Meet the Cast”; followed by “Pushing the Boundaries,” seven minutes; “Sound Design,” four minutes; a Food Network exclusive: “Alton Brown at Mr. Ping’s Noodle House,” four minutes; a Conservation International featurette: “Help Save the Wild Pandas,” two minutes; and an explanation of “How to Use Chopsticks,” three minutes.

Next up is a game called “Dragon Warrior Training Academy,” which a person must complete in five stages; a music video, “Kung Fu Fighting,” with Cee-Lo; trailers for three other DW animated films (at start-up and in the menu); several printable items from a computer; and a DreamWorks Animation Video Jukebox from which you can choose your favorite tunes from DreamWorks movies and listen to them.

The extras on “Kung Fu Panda” finish up with twenty-three scene selections; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.

Secrets of the Furious Five:
The second disc (again, packaged separately in its own keep case) contains the movie “Secrets of the Furious Five.” This movie is twenty-four minutes long, in English only–Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1–with English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and I believe I counted six chapter divisions, although they are not listed in the menu. The movie itself consists of five little stories of the Furious Five, each done up in 2-D animation much like that of the opening title sequence in “Kung Fu Panda,” with an introduction and transitions in 3-D animation. In the movie, Shifu leaves Po in charge of a group of children (bunnies), whom he must entertain and instruct. He does so by telling them the five stories, which ought to keep younger viewers’ attention, although like the main movie, they didn’t hold mine.

The extras on the “Secrets of the Furious Five” disc begin with a section called “Po’s Power Play,” which includes “Learn to Draw: Crane, Monkey, Viper, Po, Mantis, and Tigress”; the game “Dumpling Shuffle”; and a DVD-ROM set of activities for PCs, “Pandamonium” Activity Kit,” that contains a “Sound Machine”; custom printables; a “Kung Fu Panda” Activision game demo (DVD ROM); and a “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” Activision game demo (DVD ROM).

The second segment of extras is called “Land of the Panda,” and it includes “Learn the Panda Dance,” four minutes of instruction; “Do You Kung Fu?,” an introduction to the styles and poses of Kung Fu; “Inside the Chinese Zodiac,” where you click on your year of birth to find out your Chinese horoscope and zodiac animal; “What Fighting Style Are You?,” where you take a quiz to find out which Kung Fu animal you most resemble; and “Animals of Kung Fu Panda,” six minutes.

Parting Thoughts:
It appears that Jason and I are of a mind about “Kung Fu Panda.” It looks great, and the animators give it their all, but the script just isn’t strong enough to keep every adult viewer occupied for long. It’s a movie that seems made specifically for children, for whom the brief, eighty-eight running time, the lack of plot complications, and the shallow characterizations will not present a problem. Maybe in time youngsters will outgrow the movie, but for now it should keep them entertained without question.

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