Kung Fu Panda (w/ Secrets Of The Furious Five) Review

Po (Jack Black) is the kung fu panda. Or at least a panda who dreams of such awesomeness in kung fu that those who witness him in unarmed combat are left blind. Unfortunately for Po, he is only a panda who works in a noodle restaurant run by his father, Mr Ping (James Hong), who gets no closer to kung fu than the action figures of the Furious Five that he keeps in the kitchen. One day, there is great excitement when posters appear in town welcoming everyone to Master Oogway's temple in the Valley of Peace, where he will announce the name the next Dragon Warrior, a master of kung fu unequalled in all of China. Everyone believes that Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) will name one of the Furious Five as the Dragon Warrior, be it Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). Po, meanwhile, attends the announcement as only a noodle-seller, locked outside as Oogway looks upon his warriors.

But Po does not give up. He looks through peep holes, climbs trees and even builds himself a rocket out of fireworks strapped to a chair. It is with this particular device that Po lands in Oogway's temple, falling to Earth at the very moment that Oogway extends his finger to point at the Dragon Warrior. To everyone's astonishment, particularly that of the Furious Five and their sensei Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Oogway is pointing at Po. Despite his protests over the appointment of this student, Shifu agrees to teach Po. But time is short. The evil Tai Lung (Ian McShane), who was once destined to become the Dragon Warrior before Oogway saw the darkness in his heart, has escaped from Chor Ghom Prison and is now making his way to the Valley of Peace to take his revenge. Po must be ready.

Contrary to what one might expect of a film called Kung Fu Panda from Dreamworks, there are no cheap pop culture gags, no lazy voiceovers and not even any mocking of the cliches of a martial arts film. If you can look past the re-recording of Kung Fu Fighting that plays out over the end credits, it lacks even that staple of Dreamworks Animation, its characters mugging their way through a pop song in the middle of the movie. Instead, Kung Fu Panda is as much a genre movie as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, albeit with a panda as its lead character, a snow leopard as its villain, an army of rhinos who guard the same within a remote prison and a band of elite kung fu warriors formed out of a mantis, a monkey, a snake, a tigress and a crane. And a kung fu master who is a turtle.

Concede the presence of such characters and a world that has evolved to accommodate them and fans of kung fu cinema can get a lot of enjoyment from Kung Fu Panda. It has all of the Zen talk that is commonplace in genre cinema, particularly in Oogway's telling Shifu that he cannot command the destiny of a peach seed as it will always grow to become a peach tree, and features the very bizarre training apparatus that one only sees in Hong Kong action movies, not least a series of series of training posts, swinging hoops and jets of fire that leave Po a blackened and very bruised panda. This culminates in a bravura fight between Shifu and Po over a dumpling that extends up and down a mountainside, which, though funny, still avoids the kind of broad pop cultural gags that Dreamworks might otherwise have been tempted by. That Kung Fu Panda ends without making any mention, either in its dialogue or its visuals, of Enter The Dragon, Armour Of God, Beverly Hills Ninja or The Karate Kid is to be praised. Had this been released at a similar time to Shark Tale, we might not have been spared the sight of Shifu on the beach performing the crane stance to the sound of Po singing You're The Best!

The result of this is that Kung Fu Panda works best as a comedy, with the martial arts being just another part of a very believable world that directors Osborne and Stevenson have created. In time, Kung Fu Panda actually becomes less about the martial arts and more about the strength of its characters, particularly Shifu and Tai Lung. Indeed, it's only when the viewer understands the back story to the relationship between these two that the film adds drama to its broad comedy, moreso when one sees that Shifu's disappointment in his failure to train Tai Lung properly is reflected in his more restrained teaching of the Furious Five. The only weak link in all of this is Jack Black, whose performance is typical of his tendency to show off, but the rest, particularly Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman and Ian McShane, are excellent. Kudos too for the casting of the spiritual godfather of kung fu comedies, Jackie Chan, who, along with those responsible for the animation of Monkey, gets his character just right, be it his giggling through scenes or his thumbs-up to Tigress as they sprint across the rooftops en route to a fight with Tai Lung.

Dreamworks Animation did well with Kung Fu Panda, just as they have done with the brace of Madagascar films. For too long, their animation seemed technically competent but their script writing and visual design was often lazy and unfunny. Kung Fu Panda shows confidence in its ideas and characters, who are, if not wholly original, then are paying homage to martial arts movies without any need for the likes of the Scorcese-fish of Shark Tale, the gags at the expense of Disney (and Michael Eisner) in Shrek or the visual riff on Cops that interrupted Shrek 2. No need at all and with good humour and an obvious love for martial arts, Kung Fu Panda gets by in style.

This looks terrific. No doubt it looked just as good, if not better, in the cinema but played out on a decent television, it could well be the best DVD that this viewer has seen this year. Kung Fu Panda is simply so much better than a run-of-the-mill release, of which we see a lot, that it's almost more of a treat to simply look at as actually watch. The two things that are particularly worthy of praise are the colours and the detail in the image. The DVD gets the former just right. When Kung Fu Panda is set in the Valley of Peace, the colours are rich and full of greens, yellows and reds. When the film moves to the prison in which Tai Lung is restrained, it becomes a beautifully chilly mix of blue and the contrast of the white snow and the black of the shadows. The importance of colour is explained in the filmmaker's commentary in which Osborne and Stevenson describe how it is used alongside the main characters (green for Oogway and red for the Furious Five) as well as the extinguishing of light behind Tai Lung as he ascends through the prison.

As for the detail, there are so many outstanding moments that this viewer could spend this entire section simply pointing them out via the means of a long list. Not only can one spot the clarity in Mr Ping's eyebrows, in the fur in Master Shifu's ears and in the characters in the background but the detail is just as obvious in some of the standout scenes, be it in the blizzard of confetti that accompanies Oogway's announcement of the Dragon Warrior with each tiny piece of paper distinct from all the others or the sweep of pink blossoms that fall from the peach tree (and the stars in the background of that scene). And then, when you feel as though you might have seen Kung Fu Panda at its best, it pitches up the best ripples that you've seen in a CG animated movie or the tour de force that is Tai Lung's escape from prison. It looks great and the screen shots in this review just don't do it justice.

There are a number of audio options offered on the DVD, including English DD5.1 and DD2.0 Surround (French and Spanish DD5.1 are also available), with there being noticeable differences between them. Though both are excellent as regards the presentation of dialogue and action, the DD5.1 track just edges ahead with its clear use of the rear channels to set both mood and action. There's always something going on behind you as you watch Kung Fu Panda, particularly in the action set pieces such as Tai Lung's escape from prison and Po's dumpling fight with Shifu. It always sounds great, never more so than when the film, like with kung fu, explodes into action out of silence. Finally, there are English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Filmmaker's Commentary: Or, more simply, a director's commentary with Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, who waste no time in talking about the influence that anime and martial arts movies had on Kung Fu Panda. As a big fan of the film, I'm very happy to hear them talk about their homage to The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, even to how their training props are based on animals and not on tools that would be of use to people, but they do tend to dwell on their animation, the design of the film and the importance of the colour scheme. The pity about this commentary, although it's not limited to this one alone, is that for a movie that's often a lot of fun, Osborne and Stevenson keep their track very dry and not at all funny. That's not to say that a cast commentary would have been any better, nor one with the writers. Perhaps, it would have been better not to have one at all.

Meet The Cast (13m14s): One day, the DVD release of an animated film is going to ignore convention and is not going to include a feature on the voice cast behind the film. This is not, however, that day. Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Lucy Liu, Angelina Jolie and Jackie Chan are amongst those who talk about their characters and how much they enjoyed their recording studio sessions. Sounds familiar, no? When is a Meet The Cast feature ever anything different?

Pushing The Boundaries (7m04s): This technical feature presents directors Osborne and Stevenson picking out individual scenes that show off the challenges in making an animated movie that showed off some astonishing kung fu skills. But that's not all. We also get a sense of how difficult it is to animate fur, clothing and the meeting of fur and clothing, all done by a mix-and-match of pre- and post-rendered animation.

Sound Design (3m52s): As good as the animation is, it's entirely fair that the sound design should also get a look in, the best of which is the making of the big slosh sound that accompanies Po's bouncing belly and the holding of a baby aloft to get some comedy gurgling noises.

Music Video: Kung Fu Fighting by Cee-Lo (2m29s): No, not at all frightening, actually.

Mr Ping's Noodle House (4m40s): It could have been an animated look inside the noodle restaurant in the movie. But no, it's actually Mr Yip, pasta chef at a Beverly Hills restaurant, showing us how to make noodles. As simple as he makes it look, I think I'll continue to buy them.

How To Use Chopsticks (2m55s): This is rather more practical, at least for those of us who want to eat our food using authentic cutlery. Or implements or tools, however one should describe chopsticks. A little girl shows us how to use chopsticks and even teaches us the etiquette of chopstick use. Don't wave them around like a toy, never stab at your food and don't leave them sticking up out of a bowl. That's just rude.

Conservation International: Help Save Wild Pandas (1m57s): Jack Black presents this plea to aid Team Earth and the saving of the panda's natural habitat.

Dragon Warrior Training Academy: This game should entertain children for a short time, particularly as it allows them to make their own way through Master Shifu's training academy using many of the same techniques as shown in the film. Except for there being no dumplings.

Finally for this disc, there is a set of Printables, Trailers (for Monsters vs Aliens, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and Secrets Of The Furious Five) and a Dreamworks Animation Video Jukebox, which features the songs that have been heard and seen in the likes of Shrek (I'm A Believer), Shark Tale (Car Wash), Madagascar (I Like To Move It, Move It) and Flushed Away (Dancing With Myself). There is also the choice to Play All with these selections, although you might want to skip the it's-still-really-shit! Shark Tale.

Secrets Of The Furious Five (24m34s): The version of Kung Fu Panda under review here comes with a bonus disc of this short animated feature, bookended with CG but otherwise presented in Samurai Jack-style 2D animation. This film sees Po take the beginner's kung fu class, teaching the little bunnies who are training in the Valley of Peace the secrets of the Furious Five and how they realised their unique skills. As with this spin-off features, few of the original cast return - only Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman and David Cross do - but this can be explained by the Furious Five only appearing as children in flashbacks. What is good about this is the strength of its characters, who sit as naturally in this as they did in Kung Fu Panda.

The bonus features on this disc includes Po's Power Play, which features instruction on how to draw your favourite character, a game of Dumpling Shuffle and a lot more DVD ROM content, including a Sound Machine, more Printables and demos for the Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa videogames. A second lot of bonus features - Land Of The Panda - includes Learn The Panda Dance (4m26s) (with someone called Hi Hat), Do You Kung Fu?, which looks at both real and completely made up kung fu styles, Inside The Chinese Zodiac (Year of the Pig for this viewer!), Animals Of Kung Fu Panda (6m15s) and an onscreen personality quiz titled Which Fighting Style Are You?

All of these bonus features, including the commentary, are subtitled in English, French and Spanish.

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