Read the DVD Review
Over the past few months and only slightly less annoying than “movie tunes” or the loud, obnoxious commercials audiences are bombarded with at a typical multiplex, we’ve been inundated by animated public service announcements (thankfully prompting many to switch off their irritating cell phones) with Jack Black’s Kung Fu Panda starring as the most frequent celebrity spokesperson. Typically, I’m resistant to major studios with limitless bags of gold purchasing air time and sponsorship of any and every available commodity (a major reason I grew to loathe the incessant Bee Movie months before it even opened) and although Panda wasn’t shoved down out throats the same way that Dreamworks’ Bee Movie had been, needless to say I was far more excited to scour the art-houses looking for underappreciated fare before venturing towards the latest orgy of box office greed opening in wide release. Less a snobbish protest than a genuine concern that our children’s taste is being purchased rather than earned, I knew I’d see it eventually but that’s when the e-mails began rolling in as it opened and critics I admired began not only recommending Panda but raving about it. Still apprehensive that perhaps like The Incredibles which I not only disliked but wherein I felt that watching paint dry may have been much more engrossing, I held off until Paul, one of my oldest friends who’s known me for sixteen years and hopefully by now would be able to gauge my taste sent me an e-mail telling me that I simply must go. So I went and after only a few minutes, realized in the same way that I fell instantly for Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who and Surf’s Up that there’s still amazing hope for children’s entertainment, even when it’s not released from those wizards at Pixar.
Having attended a highly ethnically diverse and largely Asian high school, I found myself fascinated by kung fu and Hong Kong action films at a young age, cherishing Jackie Chan and Chow Yun Fat similar to the way that some girls my age mooned over Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. If I didn’t have a date on Valentine’s Day—and frankly as a woman, it was never my favorite day to go out since nobody acted like themselves—I stayed in and watched a Hong Kong double feature, thinking that there was nothing more romantic than Fat making amends for blinding the beautiful woman who charmingly shared my name in The Killer or watching Zhang Ziyi take on everyone while sharing my name in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As a lover of great action movies that I feel are as vital as excellent choreography in musicals or as Chan has said, a blend between silent comedy stars like Keaton and Chaplin with the precision of a Kelly or Astaire, I was worried about a children’s kung fu picture but when the credits began to roll after Kung Fu Panda, my first thought which I eagerly shared to my movie buddy was that the film kept the spirit, the hero’s journey paradigm and heart of a true martial arts adventure but just sweetened it up with humor.
We begin with Po the overweight panda-- a typical underdog, kung fu worshipping or Daniel Laruso like Karate Kid (voiced by Jack Black), who, although tirelessly devoted to his hardworking father who runs a family noodle shop, dreams of someday joining the famous “Furious Five” warriors he fantasizes about in his room, which are comprised of Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Knocked Up’s Seth Rogen), Viper (Kill Bill’s Lucy Liu), and Crane (Arrested Development’s David Cross). As Po sees it in his mind, he’s the missing Bruce Lee like link to rounding out the six with witty lines he creates such as dreaming he's telling those he’s saved that “There is no charge for awesomeness or attractiveness.” While his dad relates to having a goal, having aspired to run away from his responsibilities for the dangerous lure of making tofu, he tells his son Po the adage he’s resigned himself to which is that they’re noodle folk with broth running through their veins.
After Po grudgingly wheels the noodle cart to the Chinese Jade Palace to try and catch a glimpse of which member of the five will be dubbed the Dragon Warrior and thus the one who will bring peace to the land, Po’s attempts to get inside backfire and he’s flung via firework right into the ceremony itself, shockingly being given the coveted honor himself. With a dubious Master Shifu (an adorably drawn and earnestly voiced Dustin Hoffman) following orders from his own higher up turtle Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), Po must contend with the new challenges of trying to master the highest level of kung fu while in the presence of his five far worthier heroes as well as an extremely dissatisfied Shifu. Prone to nervous eating and pratfalls, Po the panda’s journey grows far deadlier when the feared master enemy, the snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes his maximum security prison and returns to the village, obsessed with getting revenge against his former associates at the Jade Palace.
With a brisk running time of roughly ninety minutes, admirably not overstaying its welcome in a way that has become Pixar’s Achilles Heel in their last few offerings including the dully paced Cars, Panda offers a terrific action story in the mold of some of our best loved kung fu classics complete with several obstacles, a training montage, and seeking wisdom from eccentric elders, and seems to be the perfect introduction to children for the genre and one that, not only am I considerably glad one of my best friends told me to see but also one that I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase for my nearly five year old Star Wars obsessed nephew as soon as it’s released. And of course, the added bonus to that is thanks to the Panda’s promo public service ads, he’ll learn that valuable lesson early that there’s nothing more inconsiderate than people using their cell phones at the theatre.