by HELEN GEIB
It’s a good time to be a movie martial arts fan in America. The Forbidden Kingdom, a splendid homage to Hong Kong martial arts fantasies, has just left theaters and now along comes the animated comedy Kung Fu Panda, a thoroughly delightful homage to Hong Kong kung fu movies.
Kung Fu Panda tells the evergreen story of a young panda named Po who dreams of running away from his father’s noodle shop to become a kung fu master and fight alongside the Furious Five, the kung fu heroes he idolizes. The Five are disciples of the great Shifu and live and train at the temple on the hill above town, under the spiritual direction of Master Oogway. Little does our panda know that the fulfillment of his dream is only a short prophecy, a lot of hard training, some self-actualization, and many flights of stairs away.
As every kung fu cinema fan knows (and probably most non-fans besides, thanks to ubiquitous pop culture appropriation and parody), kung fu practitioners sometimes use fighting stances inspired by and named after animals. The inspiration behind Kung Fu Panda was to make the animals the characters. The Furious Five are Tigress, Crane, Monkey, Viper, and Mantis. Shifu is a badger and Master Oogway a tortoise. Villain Tai Lung is a tiger. To provide contrast, the supporting cast of townsfolk, temple attendants, and Tai Lung’s jailers are non-kung fu type animals like ducks, pigs, and rhinoceroses.
There’s an obvious non-kung fu type animal in the principal cast as well: there’s no “Panda Stance” in kung fu fighting. The rotund, placid panda and kung fu is an inherently incongruous combination. Incongruity is comedy gold and the film mines many laughs from the comic potential of its premise.
I smiled all the way through Kung Fu Panda, except when I was laughing. The storytelling has a consistent light comedy tone. Po’s inner journey from low self-esteem to earned self-confidence is leavened by self-deprecating humor. Even the moments of pathos in the story of Shifu and Tai Lung, beloved disciple gone wrong, are sweetly funny.
Kung Fu Panda also works remarkably well as a kung fu movie. Boiled down to its essentials, the casting dilemma of every martial arts film is that most martial artists can’t act and most actors can’t do (i.e., convincingly simulate) martial arts. Animation is a creative bypass to this problem. The animators do the acting and the fighting, and both very nicely. The characters have expressive faces and gestures and masterful– and generally highly amusing– fighting abilities. In Kung Fu Panda, animation proves a most enjoyable variation on the real thing.
The people who storyboarded Kung Fu Panda really know their kung fu movies. The film is full of classic kung fu fight set-ups: the temple hall with its treasures; the training hall with its demoniacal contraptions; a suspension bridge; the rooftops of the town. There’s even a duel over a wonton fought with chopsticks. There’s lots of fun had with fighters’ size and shape differentials and funny looking appendages, too. The “costumes,” “makeup,” and background designs are all spot on. The background designs in particular look great and really capture the look and feel of martial arts cinema.
The voice cast is composed mostly of famous and well known actors, including Jack Black, Jackie Chan, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Ian McShane, Seth Rogen, and David Cross. Although I have no complaints about any of the voice work, only a few of the cast make an impression. Black as Po is unquestionably the star of the show. Indeed, I can think of no other actor more perfectly suited to voice an out of shape panda with dreams of becoming a kung fu master who battles villains and hangs out with the Furious Five. Hoffman is also very good as the highly wound Shifu.
Kung Fu Panda begins and ends on a high point. The opening is a dream sequence animated in an expressionistic, silhouette style that is strikingly different from the traditional look of the rest of the film. The opening was so fantastic I was briefly afraid the rest of the film wouldn’t be able to measure up to it. The quality of the introductory sequence is matched by the end credits sequence, a “scroll painting” illustrating the characters and their continued adventures. A cover of that infectious anthem “Kung Fu Fighting” plays over the credits, striking the perfect note on which to conclude the story.