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Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Paramount Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 11/9/2008

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 11/11/2008

For decades, Disney was the unquestioned champion of animated feature films. Every once in a while, a film from Don Bluth or Ralph Bashkie would make it to theaters, but it was the Disney films which always drew audiences -- whether it be a new movie or a re-release. 1995' Toy Story ushered in the age of the computer-generated animated film. And despite the fact that Pixar soon became a household name, the company was partnered with Disney, so the Mouse was part of that animation powerhouse. It didn't take Dreamworks (the company which was co-founded by Steven Spielberg) long to enter the game with 1996's Antz. From that point, Dreamworks competed with Pixar as the two released one film after another. And while Dreamworks had some hits, I was never a fan of their movies, even the popular Shrek franchise. (Although, Madagascar wasn't bad.) However, Kung Fu Panda changed that. While a certain Pixar movie made have made more money, Kung Fu Panda revealed itself to be the best animated film of the year.

Kung Fu Panda is set in ancient china, where we meet Po (voiced by Jack Black), a panda who works in his father's noodle restaurant. While Po is busy spooning up noodles, he dreams of being a kung fu master alongside his heroes, The Furious Five. One day, it is announced that Master Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim) will be choosing The Dragon Warrior, who, according to legend, will be the most powerful warrior that the valley has ever seen. Po is determined to see the ceremony at The Jade Palace, and much to the chagrin of Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), the panda finds himself right in the middle of the proceedings...and Oogway chooses Po to be The Dragon Warrior. Shifu is outraged by this, as are his star pupils, The Furious Five -- Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Crane (voiced by David Cross), Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu), Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan), and Mantis (voiced by Seth Rogen). Seeing how flabby and uncoordinated Po is, Shifu decides that if he pushes the panda, he'll quit. But, Po is determined to fulfill his dream of learning kung fu. Meanwhile, Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane) (a snow leopard), Shifu's former star pupil who went rogue, has escaped from prison and is on his way to The Jade Palace for revenge.

In the past, animated films from Dreamworks have tried too hard to be "hip". The movies were crowded with inside jokes and pop-culture references and the story felt like an after-thought. (While most of their films were guilty of this, the Shrek movies are wall-to-wall pop-culture references, some of which are already dated.) Clearly this was done in an attempt to make the film more appealing to older members of the audience.

Kung Fu Panda doesn't fall into this trap, and for that reason, it's Dreamworks' most accomplished film. Granted, Jack Black's voice and dialogue doesn't sound anything like anyone from ancient China, but other than that, the movie follows a very traditional, linear storyline. (It could be argued that the fact that Po has "action figures" of the Furious Five is an anachronism, but the figures appear to be made of paper, so it's not that far-fetched.)

The thing which makes Kung Fu Panda work is a very clever, yet deceptively simple one. This is essentially a classic kung fu film which just happens to be animated and populated by animals. If you look at the story and the characters, this is simply the kind of movie which Jackie Chan, Sonny Chiba, or the Shaw Brothers would have made in the 1970s. We have an unlikely hero, a cocky villain, and a Zen master who takes the hero under his wing. In this sense, the movie doesn't talk down to the audience. We aren't watching a spoof or a take-off on kung fu movies -- this is a kung fu movie...about a panda. The action scenes are somewhat intense and the movie doesn't pull any punches (no pun intended) when it comes to the kung fu.

Yet, the movie is able to take this serious story and add some great comedy. Much of this comes from Black. He infuses Po with so much personality, and in return, the animators have given Po moves which are reminiscent of Black's real-life persona. Again, his dialogue often rings hollow as far as the reality of the film, but there's no denying that he says some very funny things. (With my favorite being, "Whatch gonna do about crazy feet?") The other characters get in on the fun as well, with Shifu, Crane, and Mantis all having classic lines.

The combination of action, humor, great animation, and satisfying voice acting make Kung Fu Panda my favorite animated film of the year. The movie moves at a nice pace and is never boring. The movie has a good message (believe in yourself), but is never preachy. With animation getting more and more expensive, films today can often be "event movies" instead of entertaining. Kung Fu Panda is a truly fun film and a treat for the whole family.

Kung Fu Panda kicks and punches onto DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film has come to DVD in two separate releases, one fullframe and the other widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. I can only assume that the transfer came straight from the digital source, as it looks great. The image is sharp and clear, showing no grain or defects from the source material. The colors look fantastic, especially the deep blues and bright oranges. The picture has a very nice depth and there's no stuttering in the animation. The image is well-balanced and never too dark. The DVD contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. In the past, I've noticed that family films tone down the audio effects, but that isn't the case here. This is most noticeable in the fact that there are actually subwoofer effects and they really enhance the action scenes. The stereo and surround effects are great as well. The stereo separation is quite good and the effects show a nice amount of detail.

The Kung Fu Panda DVD contains a few extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne. This is a good commentary which mirrors the tone of the film. The two give us technical information about the film without letting their discussion get murky. They talk about how the story took shape, the voice actors, and certain decisions which were made in the animation. They also talk about the inspirations for the movie.
"Meet the Cast" (13 minutes) allows us to see Black, Hoffman, Jolie, Chan, Rogen, Liu, Cross, and McShane at work in the studio recording their parts. We then get comments from the cast members and the directors, as they discuss the characters and the actors effect this. "Pushing the Boundaries" (7 minutes) examines how technology was used to create not only the elaborate kung-fu animation, but also the level of detail in the character's clothing and fur. In "Sound Design" (4 minutes) Ethan van der Ryn discusses the creation of sound effects for the film. We get to see the artists on the soundstage creating various effects. The DVD contains the MUSIC VIDEO for the song "Kung Fu Fighting" by Cee-Lo. "Mr. Ping's Noodle House" (5 minutes) has Iron Chef host Alton Brown introducing a chef who shows us how noodles are made. "How to Use Chopsticks" (3 minutes) is exactly what it sounds like, as the instructions as given in easy to follow steps. "Dragon Warrior Training Academy" is a set-top game.

Kung Fu Panda can also be purchased with a second DVD featuring the companion piece Secrets of the Furious Five. This 24-minute short has Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) convincing Po (voiced by Jack Black) to teach a class of young rabbits. Po is unsure how to teach kung fu, so he describes the virtues of kung fu which were learned by The Furious Five. The story with Po is CG, but the flashbacks are traditional 2-D animation. This doesn't compare with the quality of Kung Fu Panda, but it's still entertaining. While it's disappointing that some of the voice actors from the film are absent here, the story is interesting and it does teach good lessons.

Secrets of the Furious Five has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source material. Colors look good and the picture is never over-saturated. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track provides clear dialogue and impressive stereo and surround sound effects during the fight scenes.

The Secrets of the Furious Five DVD contains a few extras. "Learn to Draw" shows the viewer how to draw six different characters. "Dumpling Shuffle" is a set-top game. "Learn the Panda Dance" (4 minutes) has host Hi-Hat (sp?) demonstrating this dance. "Do You Kung Fu" offers tip on the six fighting styles shown in the film. "Inside the Chinese Zodiac" is an interactive piece where viewers can explore the aniaml symbol for the year that they were born. "Animals of Kung Fu Panda" (6 minutes) examines how kung fu moves were based on the actions of real-life animals. This is followed by the quiz "What Fighting Style are You?"

Paramount Home Entertainment has also brought Kung Fu Panda to Blu-ray Disc.  The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 20 Mbps.  The image here looks flawless.  There is no grain and no defects from the source material.  I will have to assume that this was a digital-to-digital transfer, as there are no overt issues to be found here.  The colors are outstanding, especially the bold reds, greens, and oranges.  They are very bright and true and are never oversaturated.  The image is never overly bright or dark and the action is always visible.  The picture is highly detailed and we are able to see every minute part of the animation.  Likewise, the image has great depth, adding a hint of realism to the 3-D CG animation.  The Disc contains a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.5 Mbps.  This track provides clear dialogue and sound effects.  Again, the audio hasn't been toned down on this family film and we get every punch and kick from the action sequences.  Bass effects are strong and in a few scenes, wall-shaking.  The stereo effects are impressive, as we get very detailed sounds from the front channel.  The stereo separation is quite good, especially in scenes where the action is moving from side-to-side.  Surround sound effects aren't necessarily constant, but they are effective when they do appear, adding ambiance to the action scenes.

The Kung Fu Panda Blu-ray Disc contains the same extras as the DVD, plus two more.  "Trivia Track" offers viewers pop-up text during the film offering facts about the movie, the actors, and how the film actually relates to China and kung fu.  "The Animator's Corner" adds picture-in-picture elements to the audio commentary.  While we listen to that track, we get to actually see the speakers, along with storyboards and character sketches.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long