Kung Fu Panda
Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 91 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, French, Spanish; 2.0 surround English
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
MSRP: $ 34.98
Release Date: November 9, 2008
Review Date: November 8, 2008
Dreamworks’ next entry in its cuddly creatures compendium is Kung Fu Panda. Unlike many of the previous animated films from the studio, however, this one is actually about something humanly identifiable, and the animals have personalities which are both endearing and involving. We want to see what happens with them, and while the story they inhabit is fairly predictable, the animation is top notch and the voice cast impeccable. The film’s enormous popularity was no fluke; the familiar plot with the likeability of its characters made for an instant feel good experience.
Young panda bear Po (Jack Black) longs for a life beyond the confines of his father’s (James Hong) noodle shop. At a local celebration to name the next Dragon Warrior, Po is inexplicably chosen by grand master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) even though five proven fighters seem more likely candidates: Mantis (Seth Rogan), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), and especially Tigress (Angelina Jolie). When it’s obvious that he’s not ready to assume the duties of a kung fu warrior, the duty of teaching him to become worthy of the title falls to master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). And time is not their friend since once-golden boy warrior Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has escaped from captivity to claim the dragon scroll, the sole possession of the Dragon Warrior. Unfortunately, Po is more adept at eating than fighting, and Shifu must find another way to get through to his pupil if he’s to be ready to face his ultimate challenge.
Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger’s script takes the basic story of “The Little Engine That Could” and plugs in the kung fu mantra and a dozen or so individual characters to make it work. The result is something of an anomaly for Dreamworks Animation, a cartoon feature that doesn’t hinge on topical references and flatulence jokes. Instead, there is real character work involved in these creations, and the result is an ingratiating group of creatures whom the audience will really come to care for. And the direction of the action sequences is really first rate: the climactic duel between hero Po and villain Tai Lung is expectedly good (but a trifle extended as these things often are), but I actually preferred an earlier, more good-natured duel between Po and master Shifu which I tabbed “The Fight for the Final Dumpling.” Quick, witty, and filled with surprising moves: this little battle was delightful from beginning to end. Po’s training sequence and the Furious Five’s attempting to deflect Tai Lung from reaching their homeland are also marvelously handled scenes. Extremely impressive as well is the opening dream sequence handled in 2-D animation, an homage to animé which brilliantly sets up the CGI world which follows.
The voice cast is tops. Jack Black has the manic energy and good spirits to make Po instantly disarming, and no one can top Ian McShane for snarling villainy either in animation or live action (See Deadwood for an apt example of the latter) making his Tai Lung a standout. Dustin Hoffman gives a wry sparkle to Shifu’s lines while of the Furious Five, Angelina Jolie makes the strongest impression with her simmering impatience over Po’s bumbling incompetence. Michael Clarke Duncan’s deep basso is unmistakable as the head of the prison, and James Hong’s Mr. Ping, Po’s unexplained goose of a father, is delightful.
The film’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio is delivered in a beautiful transfer with anamorphic enhancement. The image is spotless, obviously being taken directly from digital files, and colors are warm and suitably saturated without resorting to overkill, a slight brownish cast being given to the overall image to establish its unique atmosphere. The image is quite dimensional for a standard definition encoding, and no banding or other artifacts are present at all to ruin the final product. The film has been divided into 23 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix has a fairly active surround presence though it’s surprising that the LFE aren’t more pronounced in such an action-filled, fight-infested feature. The sound mix is expressive and well balanced but just the least bit underwhelming in terms of bass impact.
An audio commentary featuring directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne is chock full of interesting anecdotes on their four year journey of bringing this story to the screen, including all of their original ideas for the title character’s beginnings. The two men are still talking when the final coda is reached and one actually gets cut off in mid-word.
All of the bonus features are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
“Meet the Cast” shows us all of the principal voice actors at the microphone recording their dialog and also talking off mic about their enthusiasm for the project. This feature runs 13 ¼ minutes.
“Pushing the Boundaries” has directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne discussing the major areas of difficulties they encountered making this film especially with rigging the CGI characters, the surfacing of them on the computer (with clothes on fur), the special effects work needed, and the film’s most difficult to achieve sequence: the bridge attack on Tai Lung by the Furious Five. This feature lasts 7 minutes.
“Sound Design” is discussed by sound designer Ethan Van Der Lyn as we see him and three assistants coming up with various sounds for the film’s soundtrack. This featurette runs a too brief 3 ¾ minutes.
“Kung Fu Fighting” Music Video is a 2 ½ minute music video with singer Cee-Lo singing the classic song with clips from the film integrated into the video presentation.
“Mr. Ping’s Noodle House” is a fascinating 4 ½-minute look at how real Chinese noodles are made with Alton Brown narrating a demonstration of their creation.
“How to Use Chopsticks” is exactly what is sounds like, a 3-minute demonstration on how to use the eating implements for those who are unschooled in the practice.
“Conservation International: Help Save Wild Pandas” is a 2-minute plea from star Jack Black to visit a website to learn more about helping to preserve the only 1,600 remaining wild pandas in existence.
“Dragon Warrior Training Academy” is a game for youngsters in which they visit five different rooms to master skills to become a Dragon Warrior.
“Printables and Weblinks” is a DVD-ROM section of the disc requiring a PC and internet connection to get to additional content related to the film.
“Dreamworks Animated Video Jukebox” is the same promotional section on all Dreamworks animation titles showing a film clip from one of their films with accompanying music. The Shrek films, Over the Hedge, Madagascar, Bee Movie, Flushed Away, and Shark Tale are included.
The disc features previews of Monsters Versus Aliens, Madagascar 2, and Secrets of the Furious Five.
The set sent by Dreamworks for review also contained a second disc in the attached package containing the 24-minute new-to-DVD Secrets of the Furious Five. Attempting to teach a group of young bunnies the facets of kung fu, Po relates the stories of the Furious Five, and the weakness within each one that had to mastered before they could take their true places as kung fu warriors. The framing story with Po is done with CGI animation while the individual stories of the Furious Five are done in traditional 2-D line animation. It's presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound.
The Secrets of the Furious Five disc also contains some bonuses:
“Po’s Power Play” contains three sections: learning to draw lessons for the Furious Five and Po, a Dumpling Shuffle (eye coordination) game, and Pandamonium Activity Kit (another DVD-ROM activity requiring a PC and internet connection.)
“Land of the Panda” offers a video dance lesson led by dancer Hi Hat (4 ½ minutes), Do You Kung Fu? (6 styles of kung fu posing with elemental thrusts), Inside the Chinese Zodiac (allowing viewers to find their Chinese animal category out of twelve possible based on one’s year of birth with audio annotations about traits and behaviors), the animals of Kung Fu Panda (6 ¼ minutes on the real-life creatures who served as inspirations for the film’s characters), and What Fighting Style Are You? (a personality profile questionnaire which then assigns you one of the Furious Five’s identities).
While it features a fairly familiar story, there’s enough innovation in the characterizations and animation to make Kung Fu Panda well worth seeking out. Some delightful bonus features and a top notch video presentation make this an easy recommendation.