There is no doubt I was dreading this. I have been a huge critic of Dreamworks’ digitally animated production since Shrek, and it’s hard not to see why. By in large they have been confused disasters.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a Pixar purist. I have loved every film of theirs I have seen (admittedly I have evaded A Bug’s Life and Cars). But I resent how Pixar has decimated Disney’s animation studios. Similarly I resent how Dreamworks have repeatedly produced hackneyed digitalisations of airport bookshop children’s stories with added pop-culture tripe and successfully sold them to the masses.
The resounding death knell, as far as I could see it, was in Madagascar, when Ben Stiller’s New York lion builds a faux Statue of Liberty on the beach to remind him of his lost home. This subsequently burns down, and he collapses in front of the rubble and à la Charlton Heston screams “you blew it up… darn you! Darn you all to heck!”
Wait the fuck – Darn? Heck? That’s an awful lot of censorship for a children’s film. And a reference to a film that children won’t likely have seen. So who is the joke for? If it’s for the beleaguered adults forced to sit and watch with their accompanied child, then the removal of “bad language” only serves to be outrageously condescending. And why would one even need to make a pop-culture reference to Planet of the Apes in a film that appears to have a solid plot structure (fish out of water zoo animals fend off the wild)? It boggles, and insults, the mind.
So yes, Dreamworks = shit. We’ve established that. But their latest film, which I have managed to resist mentioning for some 300 words, is actually moderately charming. In fact, it might even be deemed somewhat charming.
Kung Fu Panda is a film that if we took too seriously we would bemoan the lack of Chinese voice-actors and storm out of the cinema in a pseudo-political protest. But why bother? This film shows enough sensitivity to the land from which its story sort of derives (references to actual forms of kung fu, mahjong, various types of dishes etc) to be deemed well researched, for a kids’ film.
There is even some maturity in the script, most notably the cleverness of the film’s MacGuffin and the means by which the villain is defeated. There are also no references to popular culture (films, TV, music or forms of speech) bar occasionally toying with Jack Black’s traditional film personality, which is perfectly acceptable (and in fact leads to one of the film’s funniest sequences). Obnoxious use of modern music (most notable in the progressively disastrous Shrek series) is completely avoided until the closing credits, when ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ plays – and by then they’ve earned the right to it.
The story is fun if simple. Po, a Jack Black panda, is a food-loving panda who works with his father, a duck (amusingly never explained) who owns a noodle bar. His dream is to be a kung fu artist, and is accidentally given the chance when chosen in an apparent accident by Master Oogyay, the local mystic, and wittily a tortoise. The seemingly random choice (it is insisted by Oogway there are no accidents) outrages his disciple Master Shifu who has five excellent students, Monkey, Mantis, Viper, Crane and Tigress, all more suitable than Po, who is without training. But when the evil Tai Lung, a Siberian tiger, escapes from prison (in a rather exciting manner), it is Po who must train and face him.
The plot has few diversions from the basic “chosen one must find his path” tale, but there are clever things to be found. Po is not told to diet, as his equivalent in another film – instead he learns to master his desire for food into a martial art. While Tigress is utterly offended at not being the chosen disciple, the other four animal characters reveal themselves to be far more understanding. Tai Lung is not only undone by his own hubris, he is sat upon by it.
The gags come at regular intervals, mainly from Po, though many also from Shifu, who is voiced by Dustin Hoffman; clearly having the most fun he’s had since he played Captain Hook. Angelina Jolie, as in Shark Tale (let us never speak of it again), is utterly wasted as Tigress. As an actress, Jolie requires her face and body to carry her characters, as a voice alone she is nothing. Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu add Chinese-(ish)-ness to Monkey and Viper, while David Cross gets one terrifically awkward scene as Crane, typical of his Arrested Development persona. James Hong makes up for his turn in the vile Balls of Fury, where he managed to both offend the Chinese and the blind in equal measures, in a pleasant turn as Po’s father.
The film’s greatest problem is that it never lives up to its opening five minutes, which set the scene too well, as Po dreams of being a great warrior, entirely illustrated in traditional Chinese forms. The gorgeous drawings, combined with the music and Black’s comic narration (the word awesome has not been used so effectively since Wayne’s World) make for an introduction to film that alas is not followed up on.
This is nothing to rush out to, but it shows a step in the right direction for Katzenberg and co. who have for once managed to deflect my wrath with a smile or two. It would be nice to see people try and animate humans again, but for now a panda will more than suffice.