Film: Review: Kung Fu Panda

Animated film looks great, but its story is hollow

Jun 4, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Fat and happy in Kung Fu Panda

Like any child, I was willing to believe in fairies enough to clap and help save the dying Tinker Bell in Peter Pan, and felt touched and empowered when it worked.

But I'm older now. I still believe in the beauty of a good fairy tale. But there is only so much Hollywood-shoveled self-actualization shit I can take, and Kung Fu Panda crosses the line. Its variation on the ubiquitous "you must believe" theme is so emotionless, so phony and so formulaically hollow that you wonder if anyone involved in the film really believes in a child's precious power to fantasize. Quite frankly, this movie is a lie.

Kung Fu Panda, like a baseball player grown thick on steroids, is overloaded with hyperactive action and a villain who seemingly is invincible.

If this sounds angry, it's because I'm mad that the stories of animated films from studios like Kung Fu Panda's DreamWorks Animation — makers of Shrek — are so unimaginative. The great exception, of course, is Pixar Animation Studios, whose great writing (Ratatouille, The Incredibles) rivals its art achievement and whose accomplishments lesser competitors are trying to imitate without the same high standards.

It pains me to see parents indiscriminately flock with their kids to animated movies, no matter how tired-out their concepts.

I would think a lot of kids would be bored by the obviousness of this one.

Kung Fu Panda is especially painful because the computer-generated animation, the production design and Asian-influenced imagery are so beautiful. At times, it's transcendent. When the aged-turtle sage of the Chinese mountain kingdom where the action takes place dies, flower petals fall until the sky is transformed into a star-filled universe. It is reminiscent of scenes from Zhang Yimou's lovely House of Flying Daggers and evidence that Kung Fu Panda has studied Yimou's work as well as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The principal characters are all subtly rendered with careful, sometimes-humorous detail — the small Mantis, one of the members of the Furious Five martial-arts troupe, is especially charming. And the steps that lead to the fortress-like Jade Palace, home of sage Oogway (part Yoda, part Dalai Lama), are exotic and foreboding. So too are the palace's mysterious features — the Moon Pool, the Hall of Warriors, a vase that contains ghostly spirits.

The panda himself has a full-bodied teddy-bear look, and he hasn't had his panda-ness anthropomorphized out of existence.

But the story by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger is awful. Po the panda (voiced by Jack Black, who has very little personality when he's not actually on screen reacting to others with his exuberant facial expressions) is right out of Animation Screenwriting 101.

Clumsy and slow-moving, fat and maybe even slow-witted, Po dreams of being a kung fu master without showing any demonstrable ability. He turns his back on his quietly suffering father's noodle-soup business and, with the help of a rocket pack, flies into the palace grounds just as Oogway is about to appoint a new Dragon Warrior. He's hoping it will be him — and naturally, that happens.

This angers the Furious Five, who have been patiently taught by an aged Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman, funny and warm). In a quick series of devastating lessons that would kill any normal panda, Shifu quickly shows that Po has no talent whatsoever. We yawn and wait for the inevitable transformation.

But what really irks me about Kung Fu Panda is that the villain, Tai Lung, is too strong. He's a wayward kung fu master with semi-superhuman powers who is chained in a prison with 1,000 guards and an elaborate defense system. Naturally, he escapes — with the help of a feather — and, after apparently slaughtering his tormentors, makes for the palace. It's Dragon Warrior Po's job to save everyone.

This is a match-up so lopsided in favor of Tai Lung that it is idiotic to presume Po could ever "believe in himself" enough to be victorious. Even small children understand that — even the screenwriters understand that, which is why this is such a cynical film.

Not helping things, either, is the fact that Ian McShane gives Tai Lung extraordinary voice personality, while Black is so bland. McShane's character is more interesting. Their final conflict, which is meant to be semi-comic, is poorly staged and seems rushed.

Fortunately, Pixar has a new movie, Wall-E, coming out soon. I look forward to it. I hope Panda will be forgotten by then. Grade: C-

Opens June 6. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.