I have documented here my growing interest in the current run of martial arts films, which, as I think about it, seems to run a broad gamut—from the epics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero to some of the more comic ones, like Kung Fu Hustle. I've never seen any of the so-called chop-socky movies, in part because when they were played on Saturday afternoons when I was a child, I had no interest in what appeared to me to be really poorly put together films on the cheap (which also explains why I've never sat through an entire episode of Doctor Who not made in the 21st century). But now that I have seen the heights that can be reached with the martial arts genre, my horizons have expanded, and I'm willing to take some risks. In fact, Mrs. Speculator and I are looking at using our new DVD subscription service to find some of the better made chop-socky movies.
So along comes Kung Fu Panda, right in my wheelhouse. First, it's animated, and it takes a great deal for me not to see first-run (that is to say "first in a series") animated movies. I haven't seen Madagascar or Ice Age because the subject matter just did not appeal to me, but I'm pretty up to date with everything in the last decade (except Persepolis, which wasn't here long enough for me to catch…must add to movie queue). And it's got Jack Black, a man whose comic talents I have admired since what I consider to be his break-out movie, High Fidelity. And it appears to want to follow the growing tradition of serious-minded or seriously-intentioned martial arts movies. And yeah, it's got a panda. Who doesn't love pandas? But more importantly, it's got a snow leopard!
The movie starts with what is clearly a dream sequence, as Po the panda (voiced by Jack Black) saves his town from marauders, getting the attention and then admiration of the Furious Five, students in the local dojo and each representative of their school of kung fu—mantis, snake, crane, monkey, and tiger. The animation in this sequence is breath-taking, stylish in the way that the very best Samurai Jack episodes are stylish and engrossing. I was jarred as the dream sequence comes to an end, as they all must, and the animation resorts to what is more like the standard CGI we see in animation today. This is not to say that the animation is not lush and beautiful, but it is distinctly western and, well, normal, compared to how the movie starts.
Then we are given the back story for Po, the son of a noodle merchant who idolizes the Furious Five, who really are heroes in his home town. When the local dojo master, Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim), has a vision that an old enemy is about to escape from prison, he decides it is time to name the Dragon Master, the martial artist who will be given "the secret to ultimate power." The town gathers at the dojo to watch the tournament, fully expecting one of the Furious Five to be named. Po tries to attend, but comic forces keep him from arriving on time to get a seat, and his Wiley Coyote attempts to get in the dojo result in him gathering Oogway's attention and ultimately the title of Dragon Master.
For Po, this is a dream come true. For the inscrutable Oogway, it is circumstances simply as they must be. But for Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and the Furious Five, it is an abomination and they are dead set to have Po quit his training so that a real hero can step and save the town from its potential destruction. Shifu terrorizes and mocks Po, and the Furious Five attempt to ignore him. And meanwhile Tai Lung the snow leopard (voiced by the awesome Ian McShane) does escape from prison and is makes his way to the valley.
What follows is, in some ways, pretty predictable. Shifu and the Furious Five learn lessons about judging books/pandas by their covers. Po learns to believe in himself. And Oogway remains inscrutably zen. But along the way, some pretty amazing things happen: we learn the back story of Shifu and Tai Lung, told in flashback and employing a third animation style, a sort of mix between the dream sequence and the "normal" mode. Shifu is gently scolded by Oogway, then figures out the methods by which he can train Po to meet his potential as the Dragon Master. And there is just stunning martial arts, beautifully choreographed and then animated, lovingly mixed into the story. My only real regret is that we are given hints that the Furious Five have individual personalities, but they are never developed very far. It's a shame as several of them feel as though they could support their own movies, but they really are more plot devices than characters in this story.
I'll not give away any spoilers, but the movie really doesn't do anything surprising plot-wise. But it is the characterization and the stunning animation that make this so wonderful. It simply is lovingly crafted and a joy to watch, even as it goes where it has to go. Somehow, amazingly, Black and Hoffman seem to have a good chemistry that works through their characters and also add to the sense of fun that pervades the movie. And it has one other feature that makes it stand out against a lot of current animation, which was pointed out to me by other reviewers: the humor is confined to the movie. There are no references to our non-animated world that jar you from the setting of Kung Fu Panda. While such moments are funny, part of their humor comes from the disjunction of a fantasy character making references to 21st century pop culture. Kung Fu Panda instead relies on its own story and its craft in telling the story, to grow jokes from the ground up, making the movie that much more timeless in its theme and effort. The best Pixar movies operate in the same way, and it's nice that that philosophy has moved from just that studio.
So, while its story is generally light and airy, Kung Fu Panda is extremely well told, and its animation ranks up there with the work in Ratatouille, though not as complicated. I strongly recommend this movie, not just as an appetizer for the upcoming WALL-E but for its own virtues. I can easily see owning this and going back to it on occasion, much as we do for The Incredibles and will for Ratatouille.