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Film Review: Kung Fu Panda

Posted by anandrr on August 23, 2008

We recently watched Kung Fu Panda on the flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco. It was a tiny screen, we were packed close and uncomfortable on the flight, and the headset only cancels out so much noise. But despite all this, we simply loved this movie.

For the longest time, I’ve had a problem with modern animated movies. Gone are the movies from my childhood when an animated movie meant either a Grimm’s fairy tale dressed up to last 90 minutes or a simple tale that involved animals acting like humans except that anvils fell on their head every now and then. And oh we roared with laughter, there are few things funnier than an anvil falling on someone’s head. Not today though, kids these days are expected to understand such Randian themes as “if every one is special, no one is special,” or that a chef creating a franchise is selling out and really should be staying true to his traditions. And then they’re full of inside jokes that only adults could be expected to understand, anything to keep the adults in the seats while the kids enjoy the animation, no doubt. Ellen Degeneres providing the voice of a fish but making subtle references to her sexuality, or other pop-culture jokes like reusing De Niro to play a “mafia shark.” Happily, Kung Fu Panda manages to stay almost entirely clear of these, the plot is a simple story of a young panda wanting to be the Kung Fu master and subsequently attaining his dream (but of course), the jokes are funny, but not overly reliant on pop culture references, the action is frenzied, and the animation is splendid.

The first few minutes of the movie are beautiful. They seem to be hand painted not computer generated, and tell the story of Po the Kung Fu expert who seems to have all of China in his thrall. It all turns out to be a dream, dreamt by Po an obese Panda whose life consists of working in his father’s (a bird of some sort) noodle shop and idolising the Kung Fu masters who live way up on the nearby hill (Masters Oogway and Shifu and the next generation of fighters imaginatively named Tigress, Viper, Mantis, Crane and Monkey). The rest of the movie is conventionally animated using computers and immediately soon after the dream, the movie breaks into a riot of colour and scenery that beautifully evokes middle-ages China. Po is voiced by Jack Black than whom there are few funnier actors today. He has done the obsessive fan before in High Fidelity and the martial arts yearner in Nacho Libre. In a role that requires him to be both, he is pitch perfect. The movie itself is both homage and spoof of all the best Chinese martial arts movies you have seen. Fighters seem to defy gravity and all other physical laws when they fight, the old venerable Master Oogway speaks in riddles and sees what other people can’t, and Master Shifu is authoritarian and yet willing to have his heart melted. Some scenes are pure beauty, the introduction of Master Oogway where what appears to be a totem pole turns out to be a turtle (upside down!) with a walking stick, Master Oogway “passing on” in a flurry of flower petals, and best of all arrows raining down in true bad-ass Chinese martial arts style. Of course there are your standard story lines, the misfit who would be master; the guru who learns to love and respect his misfit student and so on, but those only serve as a basis to tell a good story, and some very funny jokes. Po ends up learning kung fu via his food addiction, and the “dumpling” scene between him and Shifu are alone worth the price of entry. But most of all, we liked that the film makers didn’t shy away from physical humour. When you have Angelina Jolie providing one of the voices, the temptation was surely high to have a few scenes and lines namecheck Brad Pitt or spoof Tomb Raider, instead we have a Panda being hit in the crotch by Kung Fu training equipment. For my money, and my adolescent sensibilities, I’ll take a solid whack on the crotch any day.

It might be that children will enjoy Kung Fu Panda more than adults to which Master Oogway would probably suggest that we need only to find the child within ourselves. Early in the movie, in the aforesaid dream scene, one of the awe-struck villagers remarks on how awesome Kung Fu master Po is and wonders how he can be repaid. To which Po replies, “There is no charge for awesomeness.”  To which we say, “Thank You Jack Black, for this pure awesomeness.”

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