From the very first minute, two things are pretty clear about Kung Fu Panda (2008). First, the script delivers a wonderfully spot on pastiche and homage to classic kung fu film conventions. And secondly the voice of Po, the titular ass kicking panda, is one Jack Black was born to deliver.
I’m a real lover of both traditional animation and the more contemporary computer generated stuff. So it is so fantastic to see the lovingly created traditional animation prologue to this film, narrated by Black’s expressive voiceover. In just a couple of minutes, Po is established as a dreamer, who yearns to be a kung fu master like those he idealises. The one criticism I would make of the film is that from this point, it is quite slow establishing the narrative. It is a fantastic, traditional ‘warrior’ journey that the character of Po takes in the film. But for me, it just took a little too long for the conflict to pick up. I think this somewhat ponderous opening half is probably whilst I slightly prefer the sequel over this film. Obviously it had the advantage of not having to set all of this backstory up and I think the resultant higher pace means I prefer that film slightly, over this still really quite good one. But when the conflict does start, so does one of the other great joys of the film – the fight sequences. These are some of the best choreographed in recent memory. All of the characters have their own specific styles which actually manifest themselves in the battles. I can only assume that The Furious Five are very much inspired by the wonderful Five Deadly Venoms (1978) and the fight scenes are similarly influenced by the wondrous martial arts in that movie. They are also ‘shot’ (can you say shot when talking about animation?) with awesome usage of slow motion and freeze frames to emphasise the big blows. I think the filmmakers should have been applauded for all this, because instead of fight scenes just slapped together and tacked on the end, we get intricate chopstick and dumpling battles and other such awesomeness.
It is not often that I talk about performances when reviewing animated films. But Jack Black’s voice performance in this film is really wonderful. He brings so much enthusiasm to the role and uses the tonality of his voice well, but he is not endlessly over the top. Black is also able to convey the trials and tribulations that Po must face on his journey to possible greatness. I’m a big fan of Jack Black’s but he definitely gets too much for me sometimes. I think in many ways animation suits him for that reason. You still get a wonderfully bombastic comedic performance, but it is only channelled through one aspect of the film. The film looks decent enough. Even in just a couple of years though, animation has come a pretty long way. And I don’t think that Dreamworks have ever had the ambition to measure up to Pixar in the visual sense. But watching this film did get me to thinking about Dreamworks, and I think that overall they are actually a quite underrated animation outfit. Of course they (rightly) dwell in the shadow of Pixar. But we are pretty unlucky to have a crew putting out films the standard of Dreamworks, and have them still only be (at best) second best at it. I don’t think they get the credit they deserve though, for making films such as this one, Shrek (2001), Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), Antz (1998), Megamind (2010), Puss in Boots (2011) and the Madagascar films.
Kung Fu Panda is a whole lot of fun and in a week celebrating the films of Jack Black, it is worth seeing for his turn as Po alone. The intricate and original fight sequences also definitely make this checking out, because they are just not what you would expect from a mainstream American animation film.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
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