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Monday, June 16th, 2008

Time Event
10:05a
Kung Fu Panda
On Sunday the 14th, we went to see "Kung Fu Panda." While animated and played mostly for fun, this is quite a loving homage to classic kung-fu films and we enjoyed it quite a bit. The art is particularly beautiful, especially in the opening sequence (Georgie said she would have quite happily watched the whole movie done in this style--.) As the New York Times and other critics have said, every frame is a work of art, and I agree. I was especially struck by the "lighting" effects which were always well done, and particularly beautiful in the big fight sequence between panda Po (voice, Jack Black) and snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane); a storm has just passed, and they fight it out in the golden light of near sunset, an effect I've seldom seen done well even in live action.

The plot is familiar: the most unlikely subject, Po, turns out to be the "Chosen One," who is destined to inherit the Dragon Scroll, and save the Valley of Peace from the vengeance of the disappointed Tai Lung. (And, yes, there's a distinct thematic similarity here to "Forbidden Kingdom." One question: Why does the trope seem to be that the Chosen One, although he's obsessed with kung-fu, when he's called upon, has no practical knowledge of it what so ever? "Level Zero," as it gets called in this film--. Couldn't they at least have studied a little bit?)

Tai Lung is an "Anakin Skywalker" figure: frustrated and angry because he believes he was arbitrarily denied the Dragon Scroll which he thinks is rightfully his, he has "turned to the Dark Side," vowing to have it by force. Continuing the Star Wars metaphor, the Jade Temple's resident kung-fu teacher, Sifu (Dustin Hoffman), has frequently been referred to as a "Yoda" figure, largely due to his diminutive size. However, he is actually more of an Obi-Wan. Having been Tai Lung's teacher, he is racked with guilt over the monster created by his indulgence. The real "Yoda" in the cast is the mystical tortoise Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim), who chooses Po as the Dragon Warrior to come.

Although all the cast members do well with the parts they are given, casting is somewhat puzzling in a number of ways. Although set in an animated version of "Mythic China," few of the major parts are done by Asians. I can't argue too much with Jack Black in the leading role--his comic timing is excellent, and he and Dustin Hoffman play well off one another (only in animation is the 70 year old actor going to become a master of kung-fu). However, Black sounds exactly like the young American he is. The casting of the wonderfully named "Furious Five" is the kind of thing that drives professional voice actors nuts. We have: Tigress (voice Angelina Jolie), Viper (voice Lucy Liu), Crane (voice David Cross), Monkey (voice Jackie Chan), and Mantis (voice Seth Rogen), any of which could have been done by any number of competent actors, probably for far less money. Jolie does a character voice as Tigress, and so doesn't sound like herself, which makes you wonder, "why her"? Chan ("Monkey") and Liu ("Viper") have about the fewest lines of the major roles. Although their presence does add a little bit, they really don't get to do much as voice actors. James Hong as "Mr. Ping," Po's father (who is, curiously enough, a duck) rounds out the major parts with a very touching and sympathetic characterization.

The animation of the kung-fu is very well done. Part of the obligatory 'training sequence', the chopstick duel between Sifu and Po is one of the cleverest and funniest sparring matches I've seen. It is closely followed by the "bridge fight" between Tai Lung and the Furious Five, good because it shows that, for all their skills, the Five can still be undone by their own arrogance and lack of forethought. The climactic battle between Po and Tai Lung is more straightforward, although kung-fu fans may recognize some amusing homage to "Kung Fu Hustle" at some points.

Altogether, "Kung Fu Panda" is a very sweet film with some morally uplifting content sandwiched in with the kung-fu. Of course there is lots of violence, some of it cataclysmic, but mostly cartoony with no gore.

Line most likely to be quoted: "There is no charge for awesomeness."

Beware of the Wuxi finger hold!

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