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Kung Fu Panda (2008).

April 9, 2010

The Scoop:
The animated feature revival of the last 15 years has been led by two prolific rival studios, Pixar and Dreamworks, who each take very different approaches to their work.

Pixar has taken a self-contained, original approach, while Dreamworks has found success being much more derivative. While Pixar does have the “Toy Story” franchise, the rest of its filmography features fresh stories with a focus on character and nuance. And as its exploration of animated storytelling has evolved, it has struck an inspired balance between kid-friendly entertainment and meditations on more complex, adult subject matter. (“WALL-E” and “Up” are particularly good films in that regard.)

Dreamworks, on the other hand, doesn’t have such high aspirations. While the filmmakers there are capable of some clever humor that can appeal to adults, their fare is aimed squarely at the children’s audience. They’re more sequel happy (witness four incarnations of “Shrek” and a couple of “Madagascar”) and TV spinoff happy. They also get more of their material from outside sources. (“Shrek” came from the William Steig book, “Over the Hedge” is a comic strip, and “Flushed Away” was produced outside of Dreamworks, by Nick Park’s Aardman Studios.)  The stories are often uninspired and derivative too, as is the music — reworked versions of older Top 40 songs, while Pixar tends to opt for new tunes by Randy Newman and others.

So, Pixar seems to be the winner here.

Yet, Dreamworks has been known to hit the mark once in a while, mainly when it uses its biggest weakness — it’s derivativeness — as a strength. When the studio sticks to detailed parodies of specific genres, such as fairy tales with the first “Shrek” or 1950s B-grade sci-fi in “Monsters vs. Aliens,” it comes out a winner.

That’s what makes “Kung Fu Panda,” Dreamworks’ take on Hong Kong martial arts flicks, so wonderful.

In the Valley of Peace, clumsy panda Po (Jack Black) works at his father’s noodle shop and idolizes the Furious Five, renowned fighters from the local martial arts academy. When Po finds himself accidentally chosen as the school’s prophesied Dragon Warrior, who must defend the valley from an attack by evil former student Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the hijinks begin. There’s not much to the story, and there doesn’t need to be. The film is briskly paced and held together with good humor, a nice message about believing in oneself and some stunningly crafted action sequences.

In fact, the fight sequences are the highlight of the movie, drawing inspiration from several different styles of martial arts movies, from the traditional kung fu stylings of the Shaw Brothers to the intricate, balletic humor of Jackie Chan (who is also in the cast as Master Monkey, one of the Furious Five). These scenes — especially the fight on the rope bridge and the epic final battle — are not just loving tributes to their antecedents, but also take their place alongside them in quality.

The voice acting is well done and despite some of the big names on hand (including Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie and Seth Rogen), the egos mostly stay out of the way of the story.

Now, if only Dreamworks could make every one of its movies this good…

Best Line:
“He was so deadly, in fact, that his enemies would go blind from over-exposure to pure awesomeness!”

Side Note:
Tai Lung is named after Shaw Brothers leading man Lung Ti.

Companion Viewing:
“Monsters vs. Aliens” (2009) and “Project A” (1983).

Official Site.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

The great, stylized opening:

In true Dreamworks fashion, an faddish 1970s hit is adopted as the movie’s theme song:

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