Kung Fu Panda (US - BD)
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Po the Panda (Jack Black) is the ultimate Kung Fu fanboy, but his life as a noodle maker’s son doesn’t leave a lot of room for martial arts practice. Then, one fateful day, it is announced that after a demonstration from ‘The Furious Five’ members Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogan), Crane (David Cross) and Viper (Lucy Liu), a new Dragon Warrior will be announced. In hopes of seeing the demonstration Po stumbles onto stage, and is ‘accidentally’ selected, leaving the untrained oaf as the world’s only hope to stop Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the most powerful martial artist alive.
I’m not sure what happened to allow traditional Kung Fu cinema to fully infiltrate popular children’s entertainment, but it happened well before Dreamworks Animation started the process of making Kung Fu Panda. I’m sure that fluffy Japanese animation like Dragonball, and nearly two decades of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t hurt the process, but recent animation seems to have a genuine interest in dealing with traditional Chinese martial arts culture.
This mysterious interest has had a mostly positive effect on television animation, leading to fun programs like Xiaolin Showdown, Jackie Chan Adventures, Skunk Fu and Ying Yang Yo (both of which Kung Fu Panda shares much in common with), and Avatar: The Last Airbender. The ‘sub-genre’ has its negative aspects as well, mostly concerning the recycled plots. Kung Fu Panda doesn’t even come close to avoid this problem. The narrative is based on two of the oldest stories in the book—‘The Hero’s Journey’ and ‘The Underdog Story’.
But what it lacks in thematic originality, an issue concerning pretty much every Dreamworks CG feature, Kung Fu Panda makes up for in well-rounded characters, and some genuinely hilarious jokes. The story arcs in the exact manner we expected, but the character react in slightly less predictable ways. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the decency of all the characters, as an annoying douche-bag streak has scorched its way across the personalities of most animated heroes lately. The jokes work because they’ll have replay value, they aren’t all based in three month old pop culture references, and the Chuck Jonesian control of slapstick doesn’t hurt.
I’d prefer a film made entirely in the style of Po’s opening dream sequence, which is a sort of digital 2D with 3D enhancements, but the relatively safe animation style that runs the rest of the feature is pleasing enough, and like Dreamworks’ Madagascar uses the elastic elements of classic hand drawn animation to a solid effect. The backgrounds aren’t up to the super-stylized levels of, say, Samurai Jack, but they aren’t designed to look realistic either. As artistry continues to be ignored in favour of fetishistic realism, painterly backgrounds and intense lighting schemes are enough to make a jaded animation fanatic grin like an idiot.
Jack Black is a modern comic genius whose talents, like those of so many other modern comic geniuses, have begun to wear very thin. The Kung Fu Panda teaser looked like more of the same from Black (the same would be shit, by the way), but the new reigning king of old shtick actually manages to disappear pretty effectively into the chubby panda. The other cast members manage much of the same, as their real world personas end up having little effect on their animated animal counterparts. It’s almost impossible to not recognize David Cross and Ian McShane, but I wouldn’t consider this the same brand of stunt casting the studio usually partakes in.
But what makes Kung Fu Panda Dreamworks Animation’s first genuinely memorable (non-Aardman) feature is a whole bunch of outstanding animation. The story is nothing but a bunch of overdone clichés, but the physical humour hits almost every time, and the action rivals most Hollywood releases. The filmmakers have obviously studied up on their Shaw Brothers, Yuen Woo-ping, and Sammo Hung, but they also have the good sense and skill to bring the classic styles into a very Americanized animated production, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of boring, dime a dozen Anime rip-offs.
Digital animation has such an advantage over live action when it comes to image compression and artefacts it sometimes seems unfair to even compare the two. High definition has levelled the playing field a bit, but as this spotless 1.78:1 transfer proves, the see-saw still dips in CG’s favour. Much of Kung Fu Panda’s visual appeal is found in its hyper-colourful, Chuck Jones meets Mario Bava lighting schemes. The DVD release is plenty colourful, but this Blu-ray release is much more intense. Besides the really stylized stuff, like Tai Lung’s prison break, or any of the gorgeous outdoor night-time sequences, there are plenty of small colour details (like the cat’s glowing eyes) to make the hi-def purchase worth the extra scratch. And if it’s super-fine details you’re looking for, well I’ve got plenty for you. The character designs don’t aim for realism, and some of the characters have that smooth, slightly plasticy look, but others are covered in tiny hairs, and some of their clothing is threaded with fine silk. It all looks about as perfect as we can expect, without any edge enhancement or digital compression to ruin it for us.
Live action kung-fu cinema is already often over-the-top in sound design, so the addition of full-on animation clichés makes for an elaborate and intense aural experience. Paramount Blu-ray discs unfortunately never seem to feature DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, but aside from a slight decrease in overall volume, there isn’t any reason to complain about this Dolby TrueHD track. Again, as with the video, the impressive nature of the broader audio moments are no surprise, it is the fine details that make the track, such as the snake’s hiss and mantis’ chatter, which nestle warmly between the crooks of hand to face impacts and terrifying growls. The surround channels are ultra-busy, at all times, but the mix is appropriate and balanced enough to never become a distraction. The bass track is a little less powerful than Paramount’s Iron Man release, but is clean-cut, and a good addition to the film’s many impacts. The film’s score, by heavy hitters Hans Zimmer and John Powell, recalls Tan Dun’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon score, and though a might predictable, features plenty of memorable and easy to recall themes.
Dreamworks Animated DVDs and Blu-rays all follow a pretty specific formula, and Kung Fu Panda doesn’t take many steps to break that mould. Things start with our various in-movie experiences, including a commentary track, a trivia track, and an ‘Animator’s Corner’ PiP option. Of course my Profile 1.0 player prevents me from reviewing the PiP option, but I’ve got no problem with commentaries and trivia tracks. The commentary features dual directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, who are consistent informants, and entertaining guys. The directors strike a nice balance between technical factoids, structural reasoning, talk of inspiration and Easter Eggs, and big thanks to all the cast and crew. The trivia track is basically an edited version of the commentary track.
The fluffy featurettes start with ‘Meet the Cast’, where the audience is given the chance to… meet the cast. This particular cast is perhaps the most intriguing in recent animation history, pulling actors from many different arenas without being too stereotypical. A dimly entertaining thirteen minutes. Next up is ‘Pushing the Boundaries’, the technical featurette. This seven minute bit is more concerned with the film’s ambitious action than the gorgeous art direction, but makes quick and effective work of a lot of technical jargon. It is consistently amazing how quickly the computer animation process evolves—hair isn’t even a problem anymore. ‘Conservation International: Help Save Wild Pandas’ is a two minute infomercial for the kiddies staring the real Jack Black that aims to educate the wee ones on how to save the adorable creatures.
Under the ‘Po’s Power Play’ banner are three ‘games’, again aimed at the kiddies. First is ‘Dragon Warrior Training Academy’, a five part action game that runs a little slow, and will likely frustrate most players because of the remote-to-player lag. ‘Dumpling Shuffle’ is a digital version of the old street corner cup-and-ball game that doesn’t really go anywhere, but is less frustrating to play on a Blu-ray player. The ‘Learn to Draw’ segment isn’t a game, I suppose, and pretty much speaks for itself. Aspiring artists are given a how-to option of Po, Mantis, Tigress, Crane, Money and Viper.
Under ‘Sounds and Moves of Kung Fu’ are a few more brief options. ‘Sound Design’ doesn’t let us in on anything we didn’t already know about the Foley process, but manages to be a bit informative concerning the specific sound design of the sharply designed film. I’d personally like to put a ten year ban on the use of the song ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, but those that don’t quite hate the song yet can enjoy a kid-friendly music video for Cee-Lo’s cover version, and then learn the ‘Panda Dance’ from a choreographer named Hi-Hat. The dance was too complicated for me. The poses of ‘Do You Know Kung-Fu’ weren’t much easier. I guess I’m just out of shape.
The last sub-menu, ‘Land of the Panda’ is made up of a few brief informational featurettes. Some dude from the Food Network named Alton Brown starts us off by hosting a quick glance at the amazingly hypnotic process of making noodles from scratch. Then a little girl and the Dreamworks Kids narrator teach us how to use chopsticks. Finally, something I know how to do. Next up is an interactive look at the Chinese Zodiac (I’m a monkey), followed by a look at the animals featured in the film, and how they influenced real life Kung Fu. The final section, a quiz called ‘What Fighting Style Are You’, reinstates the fact that I am a monkey.
The Blu-Ray disc is completed with another Dreamworks Animation juke box, trailers, and a BD-Live option. However, there is one DVD exclusive extra. Well, sort of. The Blu-ray release doesn’t feature the new animated short Secrets of the Furious Five (even though it could’ve easily fit on the goddamned disc). The only way to see the movie, and its additional extras, are by purchasing the two-disc DVD set. Dreamworks pulls this stunt all the time, specifically with Christmas shorts. Why Blu-ray viewers should be punished for spending more money on the company than DVD viewers is the question.
Dreamworks finally makes a good animated film without the help of the clay-mation geniuses at Aardman, but it still doesn’t compare to the majority of Pixar’s output in storytelling sophistication. The studio’s technical abilities have never been in question, and I can finally say that I laughed heartily at their concept of humour, but they still need to find an original story. Regardless, Kung Fu Panda is an entertaining blast, featuring a hilarious sense of slapstick, and some truly remarkable action sequences. The Blu-ray disc is the way to go for audio/visual perfection, but the only way to see the Secrets of the Furious Five short film is to buy the DVD set—lame.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 8th November 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Portuguese and Spanish
Extras: Directors Commentary, Trivia Track, Animator’s Corner, Meet the Cast, Pushing the Boundaries, Save Real Pandas, Dragon Warrior Training Academy, Dumpling Shuffle, Learn to Draw, Do You Know Kung-Fu?, Sound Design, Land of the Panda, Music Video, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Stevenson, Mark Osborne
Cast: Jack Black, David Cross, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Dustin Hoffman
Genre: Action, Animation and Comedy
Length: 88 minutes
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