Sunday, June 8, 2008

Kung Fu Night! Kung Fu Panda

Wait...wasn't this already out this year? And wasn't it called The Forbidden Kingdom?

Kung Fu Panda, directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. Screenplay by Jonathan Aibel and Glen Berger. Starring Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and Angelina Jolie. Produced by Melissa Cobb. Dreamworks (2008). Rated PG. USCCB Rating is AI--General Patronage.

D.G.D.: I didn't quite know what to expect when we went in, but I was impressed with what I saw. It gets off to a slow start that made me worry that we were going to see incomprehensible action sequences like the ones in Arthur and the Invisibles, but midway through the movie, the excessively fancy camerawork settles down and focuses where it needs to.

Snuffles: Considering that it's a movie that is, more-or-less, about violence, it's also surprisingly wholesome. Other than a single guy-getting-hit-in-the-crotch joke, which is apparently obligatory in American animated films (P.S., Hollywood, it wasn't funny the first time, so it definitely isn't funny the five thousandth time), the humor is clean, refreshingly free of scatalogical references, and actually funny. I consider that a rare treat in an American "family" film.

D.G.D.: Let's get on to the plot summary--

Snuffles: Right. The story follows a panda, Po (Jack Black), who works in a noodle restaurant and dreams of becoming a great Kung fu master, just like his five heroes who live high above the valley in the Jade Palace. He gets his chance when the ancient sage Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) singles him out as the prophesied Dragon Warrior, destined to learn the secrets of the magical Dragon Scroll. This upsets Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), who must train Po. Shifu devises various means of getting Po to quit, but Po survives on sheer determination and an apparent inability to experience injury.

D.G.D.: While that's going on, a former student of Shifu's, the evil and almost invincible Tai Lung (Ian McShane), escapes from a heavily guarded mountain prison and makes his way to the valley, determined to avenge himself on his old master and seize the Dragon Scroll for himself. Since Oogway, who previously defeated Tai Lung, has taken an ill-timed trip to heaven on a cloud of peach blossoms, Shifu's only hope is to train Po, as only the Dragon Warrior can possibly win against the apparently unbeatable enemy.

Snuffles: Watching a panda doing Kung fu really makes me wish someone would make a live-action Ranma 1/2 movie.

D.G.D.: Um...right. Anyway, I was skeptical about anthropomorphic animals doing Kung fu, but the martial arts sequences in the movie, though sometimes too over-the-top even for me, are pretty good. It's all bloodless to keep the rating down, but the action is fast-paced, exciting, and well-choreographed, if that's the right term to use for animated action. The script is quite funny even though it remains within the boundaries of the comfortable formulas.

Snuffles: I, however, take issue with the movie's moral message.

D.G.D.: You do? Why?

Snuffles: The message is, "Believe in yourself and you can do anything." That's the standard fall-back moral for Hollywood kid-friendly films. Now, there are certain things you can accomplish if you have self-confidence, such as public speaking, but this movie is about gravity-defying wire-fu. Besides that, Po the panda begins to learn Kung fu only after he discovers that, for him, the key to becoming a great warrior is his tendency to eat excessively. So the movie is telling us that if you just believe in yourself, you can defy gravity, and that your power lies in your tendency to eat excessively. I don't think that's a good message to send to American youth.

D.G.D.: Ah, c'mon.

Snuffles: Sorry, I don't believe in the message.

D.G.D.: Then ignore the message. It's a disposable message anyway. The really important thing is fuzzy animals kicking the snot out of each other.

Snuffles: Well, you do have a point. But I'm also annoyed at the way the movie delivers dumbed-down ancient Chinese wisdom. Someone actually says, "Today is a gift. That's why it's called the present."

D.G.D.: Yeah, I winced at that. I'm pretty sure I've seen it on a Crummy Church Sign. But that was a single terrible line in an hour and a half of movie, so I'm willing to forgive it. What I think is weird is the choice of voice talent. How many out-of-work voice actors are on the streets of L.A. because studios are casting big-name actors to voice cartoons? Who in his right mind hires Jackie Chan for voice work? And what is Angelina Jolie doing in this? Jack Black is pretty good as Po, and Dustin Hoffman is good as Shifu because Dustin Hoffman is good at everything, but the other choices for voices are bizarre.

Snuffles: Except the villain, Tai Lung.

D.G.D.: Ah, yes. Ian McShane's villain is good, but I hardly think that's McShane's fault. He's a menacing-looking character, his backstory is interesting, and his motive is unusually believable. He's a villain you can sympathize with and want to see defeated at the same time. But I don't think much credit for that goes to the voice actor. He doesn't have many lines.

Snuffles: That's it, then. Reasonably good family-friendly action cartoon. We mostly agree, for once.

D.G.D.: Except on the message part.

Snuffles: Oh, that's right. I guess you are still a moron.

Content Advisory: Contains cartoon action violence

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Kung Fu Panda:

Myth Level: Medium (the usual)

Quality: Medium-High (a well-made, reasonably well-written, highly entertaining film)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (nothing objectionable, weak but okay moral message)
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