DREAMWORKS ANIMATION DIGS ITSELF OUT A CREATIVE DITCH
by John Topping
published June 6, 2008
now playing nationwide
There is one thing about being a critic that sucks: the need to watch a movie
critically. It was with a dollop of dread that I went to the screening of directors Mark
Osborne and John Stevenson’s Kung Fu Panda. It was automatically in a bad
position: the likelihood that it would be as good as a typical Pixar animated film was slim,
and the likelihood that it would be as mediocre as any other typical DreamWorks Animation film was great. So it was similar to the old adage that a woman has to work twice as hard just to get an equal level of
respect that a man in the same position receives automatically. If only I had known in advance
that it was a cut above regular DreamWorks Animation fare and that I could just sit back and enjoy it, it wouldn’t have needed the extra
burden of winning me over.
It still falls short of most Pixar films or the absolute
cream-of-the-crop of DreamWorks Animation (the first Shrek, Chicken Run, Wallace &
Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), but it is worlds better than the usual disappointments (Shrek 2, Flushed Away and others I’ve only heard about). Or, you
might say, the quality of your life will not suffer if you never see Kung Fu Panda, but if you’re not anti-animation and you go into
the theater willingly, it’s a delightful (and delightfully quick) hour and a half of your time.
Jack Black is the voice of
Po, a grossly overweight panda (warning: there are endless jokes about being fat) whose unwanted destiny is to take over his father’s noodle
business (his father is a goose, and, like color-blind casting, the exact lineage is never explained). Po fantasizes about being a kung fu expert, but he doesn’t seem to have anything close to what it takes, like
his heroes, the Furious Five, who come to the village with their master, Shifu (voice of Dustin Hoffman), and his master, Oogway (voice of
Randall Duk Kim), for a public ceremony of the choosing of the Dragon Warrior. To their collective
chagrin, Oogway accidentally points to Po. “Ah, but there are no accidents.” And so Shifu has the thankless task of training this inept creature to be not only as good as any of the
Furious Five, but better, in order to conquer the arch enemy Tai Lung (it’s less complicated than I’m making it sound).
It’s a foregone conclusion that Shifu will somehow succeed in this training, but even within the context of a film with
anthropomorphic animals, you really wonder how it’s going to be done convincingly. A little
suspension of disbelief is required, but the solution that puts Po on the track to mastery is brilliant.
The animation is superb, including an opening sequence completely
different in style from the rest of the film. The story progression is tight and well-drawn.
There are a several moments during the kung fu fighting sequences wherein what happens happens so fast that you don’t know what happened, but
for the most part the film allows you to breathe, unlike a film like Flushed Away that doesn’t trust your attention span and so pushes
the comedy and action ahead of its natural landing. Most of the laugh-out-loud yuks are provided
by Black. So, congratulations are in order for DreamWorks Animation. For the moment at least, Kung Fu Panda returns them to the ranks of respectability.
Additional voice talent includes Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu and Michael Clarke
johntopping @ stageandcinema.com