Review: Kung Fu Panda
By Eric Hughes
July 3, 2008

He's taunting the bad guy *and* walking like an Egyptian!

For a long while, I found something to like in whatever digitally animated movie I came across. This was most notable in releases from Pixar, which through the years has proven itself to be animation's king studio. Fine examples would be The Toy Story franchise, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, DreamWork's Shrek and even Fox's Ice Age. But then some bad things happened following the release of Shrek 2: I fell asleep during The Incredibles, I didn't bother with Cars, Shrek the Third was completely terrible and I never really got into Ratatouille, no matter how wonderful everyone said it was.

It may have taken four years, but my faith has been restored in CGI-animated fare (phew). Surprisingly, I have DreamWorks (and not Pixar) to thank with its release of Kung Fu Panda, the studio's best animated release to date. (And a neat little distraction, too, before DreamWorks' probable back step with another Shrek movie in 2010).

Kung Fu Panda stars Jack Black as lead character Po, a fat and funny Panda who works in his family's noodle shop and wildly dreams to one day make a name for himself in the world of kung fu. His dreams unexpectedly come true when the Valley of Peace's Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) selects Po as the area's prophesied Dragon Warrior and assumed protector of the land from evil, namely the treacherous snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane). Problem is, Po hasn't had a day of kung fu training to his name, and is definitely in no shape to even compete with any of the experienced Furious Five – Tigress, Crane, Mantis, Viper and Monkey – all of whom feel cheated out of becoming the acclaimed Dragon Warrior.

Typical of DreamWorks, the studio rounded up an all-star voice cast for this very funny, and at times philosophical, family film. Alongside lead Jack Black is Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu, as well as Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu and David Cross, each of whom portrays an individual member of the Furious Five. Michael Clarke Duncan is also thrown in as Commander Vachir, head of prison security.

Though Jolie and company really don't share that many lines -- and in fact could be replaced by different actors altogether with minimal change to the film's tone -- the casting of Hoffman and Black in their respective roles is – yes, I'm going to say it – perfect. Perhaps even more so for Black, a comic seemingly born to play that big, loveable panda. At times, Po very much reminded me of Barry from High Fidelity or Dewey Finn from School of Rock, two past Jack Black characters completely infatuated with all things rock. Only here, replace that popular music genre with another obsession, China's storied kung fu history, and you've basically whipped up another classic Black character, just in animated form. (And also a panda, but I think you get the point).

And I like that this one is funny, but certainly not in the hit-or-miss, taking-shots-at-pop-culture way that more or less benefited the Shrek franchise. Though also a DreamWorks product, Kung Fu Panda is subtle in its timing, relying more so on simple, funny material and physical comedy – Po's struggles to get in the stadium, Po scarfing down cookies – over cheap, Shrek-like gags. And thankfully, Mike Myers' brand of potty humor is left out of this one as well.

But where the movie really shines is in its stunning visuals, an achievement for DreamWorks that I think makes Kung Fu Panda even comparable to recent Pixar releases. The Valley of Peace calls for color, and the animators make use of practically the entire spectrum to make that possible. On top of this is the creative framing of the scenes and its characters, credited to co-directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. Much of what you're looking at is so visually interesting, whether it's a simple unbalanced shot, a well-timed close-up or something more complicated.

Sadly as I write this, though, DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg confirmed rumors that Kung Fu Panda may become the studio's next Shrek in that multiple sequels could be made, depending on the original's performance. Seriously, DreamWorks is looking at making up to five more films in the franchise. But possible criticism on that piece of news should certainly take five in this space, because Kung Fu Panda deserves nothing short of praise.