Kung Fu Panda

DreamWorks Animation has had its share of animated disappointments. Movies like Shark Tale and Flushed Away have quickly faded from public consciousness, while Shrek’s merits are still widely debated. Finally the studio has released an animated movie everyone can agree is an excellently rendered product with a fantastic underdog story that has instantly become the studio’s best animated flick and shown that Disney/Pixar has some real competition. In Kung Fu Panda, that underdog is Po (Jack Black), a fat panda who dreams about joining the famed kung fu warriors of his time, but doesn’t actually have the physical prowess to make that dream a reality. The universe has other plans for Po, however, when the panda is chosen as the “dragon warrior,” the ultimate kung fu master who will protect the Valley of Peace from the return of Tai Lung, a vengeful former pupil of Master Shifu. Before Po can face off with Tai Lung, he has to overcome his own clumsiness, as well as the jealousy and frustration of the warriors the panda idolizes, including Master Shifu.

As an animated tale Kung Fu Panda is nothing short of breathtaking. This movie is quite possibly an all-time high accomplishment for DreamWorks Animation, with beautiful animation ranging from highly detailed fur on a lot of the animals to a gorgeous depiction of mystical China. It’s easy to quickly become lost in the animated world of Kung Fu Panda and to forget everything on screen was created inside of a computer. Even on repeat viewings, I find myself awed by how beautiful some of the animation is in the film.

The visual style of the film is also deliciously complex, with a lot going on in each scene. Watching the DVD release is my third viewing of the movie, and I’m still catching tiny little details in the animation - background characters or subtle movements of primary characters I hadn’t seen before. It’s done with an intelligent approach. Missing these things won’t detract from enjoying the movie, and catching them doesn’t distract from the story. It’s a directorial approach I always enjoy in movies - giving viewers something new to catch on repeated viewings.

But a movie has to be more than just visually beautiful, and Kung Fu Panda brings substance as well as beauty. Sure, the story of an underdog trying to overcome adversity both outside and within isn’t original. Po is the ultimate fanboy, finally given the chance to join the world he so idolizes. Master Shifu is the devoted father-figure, having to face the consequences for his own pride and drive for his child. Meanwhile, the wise turtle Master Oogway spouts philosophical wisdom with fortune cookie familiarity, but all of the elements combine to make a compelling story with characters that are deep enough to draw the viewer into that story and make them care about what’s going on.

Of course, a lot of the characterization needs to be credited to a talented and bizarrely eclectic cast. Po is the perfect character for Jack Black, building on the fanboy fanaticism and bravado he’s shown in the past with his Tenacious D character or School of Rock. Ian McShane continues to be one of the best villains on film these days, even with just his voice. Dustin Hoffman is probably the most unlikely kung fu master ever in the real world, but he makes Master Shifu come alive. The legendary “Furious Five” kung fu masters include the voices of talent you’d expect, like Jackie Chan, Angelina Jolie, and Lucy Liu, but also those you’d never expect, like Seth Rogen and David Cross. Everyone puts in a phenomenal vocal performance, topped off by an amazing score from Hans Zimmer to give the movie a final punch on the ears.

I have to admit, originally I didn’t expect much from Kung Fu Panda, and the movie blew me away completely. Now it’s a movie I’ve seen several times, and it hasn’t disappointed me yet. With a positive message, an endearing story, and dazzling animation, Kung Fu Panda just might be the best animated movie this year. The DVD release for Kung Fu Panda is a tad bit disappointing, focused more on entertaining the kids than providing much background to the movie. Most of the making-of material feels like an extended commercial that probably ran on Nickelodeon or something, while the more kid-friendly content doesn’t offer much for the adults who enjoy the movie. Tack in a needless music video, and you’ve got a sub-par DVD release.

Before I get into dissecting the DVD’s contents, let me say even on standard DVD the movie looks amazing, and carries a higher level of visible detail than I noticed in theaters. This is definitely a movie to use to showcase your home theater due to its beautiful color range and elaborate visuals. The sound felt like it underutilized the surround sound a bit, and the few times I noticed things coming from rear speakers it felt abrupt instead of just part of the flow of the sound design of the disc.

The first four entries on the special features menu all look at behind the scenes of the movie. The most informative of these is the filmmaker’s commentary, from directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne. Obviously that requires the time commitment of watching the movie again, and they aren’t always the most compelling speakers, but they are pretty enthusiastic about their movie, and that helps a lot.

On the featurettes side, “Meet the Cast” gives a quick peek at each actor recording lines and talking about their part. Interesting comments include the fact that Jack Black got his role because of his involvement with Shark Tale (possibly the only good thing to come from that movie) and that Angelina Jolie really wanted to play Tigress, but didn’t think she got the part. Two other really short featurettes note that this movie pushed the limits of computer-based animation (in the aptly titled “Pushing the Boundaries”) and “Sound Design” looks at - you guessed it - the movie’s sound design. As a film fan, I’d really have enjoyed seeing these last two expanded on drastically, but I guess that would detract from the kid-friendly approach the disc takes from this point on.

Since Po is an overweight panda who starts out working in a noodle-shop, it seems appropriate to have some of the disc’s contents focused on food. Alton Brown puts in an appearance in “Mr. Ping’s Noodle House” to look at how noodles are made from a lump of dough. It’s actually a really interesting, short featurette, although I can’t imagine watching it too much. Another featurette shows how to use chopsticks to eat, and quickly hits on Chinese etiquette for using chopsticks. Sadly, Alton Brown isn’t around for that part.

One of the more frustrating parts of the DVD is the “Dragon Warrior Training Academy” which is a series of set-top DVD games. As usual, the games are frustrating, with unclear instructions on some of the games, and stock footage used from the movies to animate the games that isn’t always relevant to what’s going on. For instance, Monkey’s game asks you to hit the enter button to move forward on a series of platforms through rings. If you don’t hit the button at the right time, you “fall down,” but the animation that plays is Monkey beating on Po during one of the movie’s training montages. It has nothing to do with falling down. Considering Kung Fu Panda already had console games released, I can’t imagine this game holding any kid’s attention for very long, let alone an adult.

The rest of the disc’s contents include DVD-ROM content (printables), a music video for Jack Black’s rendition of “Kung Fu Fighting,” and a random plea for viewers to join “Team Earth” to help save the bamboo forests that provide the real panda’s habitat.

Just about everything located on the DVD is incredibly short, with the longest featurette only clocking in at thirteen minutes. That means you can pretty quickly make your way through all the bonus materials just to say you have, then focus on the real treasure of the disc - the movie itself. It may be the only thing that will make you want to put this disc into your player more than once, but I guarantee repeat viewings will still be as enjoyable as the first time you saw it.