Kung Fu Panda Review
Set up in 1998 - after Pixar had already released Toy Story to massive critical and commercial success in 1996 - there is a sense that Dreamworks Animation has always been following in the footsteps of Disney’s heralded studio. Whether or not the studio was explicitly tasked with emulating and challenging Pixar is perhaps irrelevant now, since this is certainly the situation that Dreamworks currently finds itself in. Indeed, when it comes to producing animated features for the cinema, Dreamworks and Pixar are by far the most recognisable, successful and prolific studios presently at work. Factor in (broadly) similar aspirations and it is logical and inevitable that both studios routinely see their films drawn together for comparison.
Unfortunately for Dreamworks, however, comparisons to date have not always been too kind. Cars apart, Pixar has somehow managed to create intelligent, funny and imaginative films without ever really missing a step - and Cars is far from the disaster that some would have it. In contrast, Dreamworks has been involved in a number of films and sequels that are passable and enjoyable, but little more - only Shrek, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and perhaps Antz reward repeat viewings in the way that Finding Nemo and The Incredibles do. Rather than compete with Pixar, Dreamworks has tended to slipstream.
Trying to clarify just why this has been the case is not easy. (If it was as straight forward as identifying the one element that works for Pixar, then Dreamworks – and any other number of studios - would be releasing films of a similar quality on a routine basis!) Regardless, what does seem to be is that Pixar’s films display a deftness of touch and a level of wit, imagination and observation that other films fall short of – surely a reflection of the studio’s ambitions and integrity. Where Dreamworks and others seem to focus on securing stars and fashionable actors for half-drawn roles, Pixar strives to create rounded, emotional and very human characters.
A cursory glance in the direction of Dreamworks' latest release does little to suggest that this has changed. Directed by Mark Osborne & John Stevenson, Kung Fu Panda follows the fortunes of Po, Jack Black’s affable, titular bear. Yearning for excitement and purpose in his life, Po finds himself being trained in the ways of kung fu by Master Shifu (Hoffman). This is much to the bemusement and frustration of Shifu’s other protégés, the Furious Five, but more crucially to the chagrin of former pupil Tai Lung (McShane).
Not surprisingly, what follows is often predictable and convenient, and the plot of the film is functional at best. Then again, it should be said that things generally move on at a decent pace, and that where developments are superficial, this may be because the film is likely to be watched by high numbers of children. What is surprising then, given this facile framework, is that Kung Fu Panda ends up being Dreamworks’ finest film for some time, evidencing newfound subtlety, imagination and maturity.
These qualities are all evidenced in the characters of Po and Shifu, and in their developing relationship. Both characters display credible flaws and insecurities, and their relationship features a number of clashes, making them and it all the more interesting. There is nothing quite as immediate as the rapport between Woody and Buzz here, but this relationship certainly adds another dimension to the film.
The manner in which both characters evolve apart and together also paves the way towards Po’s training scenes, which are some of the best in the film - the sparring scene with which Po completes his training is particularly impressive and well-judged; enhanced by the apt score, the sequence is developed perfectly in terms of action, humour, rhythm and scale, providing a truly satisfying moment as Po finally gains Shifu’s approval.
The other highpoints in the film are a marked improvement on the likes of Madagascar and Over the Hedge as well. The opening sequence is a brilliantly evocative piece of traditional animation that is good enough – and surprising enough - to make the first 20 minutes of the film proper even more underwhelming. This sequence also features some dialogue that instantly brings to mind the literal translations of so many kung fu movies - an added bonus for older viewers! As befits the film’s title, there are also two superb fight sequences. Staged across epic but very different locations (as well as different planes), these set pieces are well choreographed and very well drawn.
There is a definite sense that Kung Fu Panda is a missed opportunity though, with the film failing to build on these impressive elements as fully as maybe it should. To begin with, the script is never hilariously funny and relies on some pretty uninspired jokes at times. (All the same, Po and Shifu lend a charm to the film that is pleasing and amusing; this charm may well reward further viewings with greater laughs as well.)
Much more significant than this is the film’s inexplicable treatment of the Furious Five, who remain undeveloped and underused both individually and collectively. With the exception of one fight scene and a few funny lines given over to Seth Rogen’s Grasshopper, these characters are remarkably thin and there is nothing to justify their star billing. Importantly, Tai Lung is given a little more depth (mainly by way of Shifu), although he works as a character more because of Ian McShane’s fine voiceover than anything else. Finally, the fight at the end of the film is not quite as good as those earlier on either: very dynamic and perhaps funnier, but a little samey.
On balance, Kung Fu Panda is an enjoyable film that truly benefits from the relationship shared by Po and Shifu. Consistently fun without ever being consistently funny, there are certainly flaws here but there are encouraging signs too. Dreamworks deserves to do well with Kung Fu Panda, although it is still more likely that it will be Wall-E who cleans up this summer.
Aside: there is a brief scene following the credits at the end of the film.