If you're looking for risk-free fun at the movies this summer, bet on Kung Fu Panda, a lighthearted animated adventure built on the comic skills and unbridled enthusiasms of Jack Black. Already an animated personality, Black voices Chinese panda Po, who harbors fanatical dreams of achieving kung fu "awesomeness" and "bodacity" despite some pretty tall obstacles: he's fat, he's lazy, and he has no demonstrable talent or ability. Luckily, his ineptness is matched by resilience. Under that fur and fat, Po is a hero waiting to happen.
Thanks to a consistently clever screenplay by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger, and direction by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, DreamWorks Animation's latest has the right stuff to make audiences laugh but also care about the film's characters. The film's surest gambit is to set up serious kung-fu beats with dialogue and music, then systematically undercut those beats with surgical jokes. Or do both at the same time, as accomplished by the opening title: "Legend tells of a legendary warrior whose kung fu skills were the stuff of legend." Though the laughs come in large part due to our history with kung fu movies, the comic timing and visual touches mean the jokes won't be lost on kids either.
The inventor of kung fu-an ancient, doddering turtle named Oogway (Randall Duk Kim)-has long prophesied the arrival of one known as the Dragon Warrior. Shockingly, he identifies Po as the fabled hero who can save the Valley of Peace by protecting the Dragon Scroll from escaped baddie Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a nasty snow leopard itching for a showdown with the Dragon Warrior. No one can believe it, least of all Po's dad, a goose (don't ask) and noodle-shop proprietor named Mr. Ping (James Hong).
The Dragon Warrior will be trained by Master Shifu (a dryly amusing Dustin Hoffman) alongside local heroes the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross) and Monkey (Jackie Chan)—literalizing the classic styles into their animal equivalents is a bit of pure-gold inspiration. The problem: none of these experts remotely believe in Po. But their master Oogway is insistent that Po "will bring peace to the valley and also to" Shifu, who's beside himself at the prospect of training a butterball (news flash: the way to his heart is food).
Naturally, kids will go ape (go panda?) for Po's antics, but adults will likewise find them hard to resist. Kung Fu Panda's other secret weapon is expertly choreographed action, such as a kung fun tournament, Po and Shifu's instructional fight over a dumpling, and the climactic showdown (the final blow of which is memorably accompanied by the Blackian exhortation "Skidoosh!"). The plot is strictly standard-issue, but the dynamic animation, and performers of the caliber of Black and Hoffman, take it a long way. The movie's crackpot message—"To make something special, you just have to believe it's special"—may best be proven by the existence of this funny, unpretentious, more than bear-able crowd-pleaser.
Paramount shows its own set of impressive, lightning-swift moves with its Blu-ray special edition of Kung Fu Panda. Central to the disc is a flawless transfer with beautifully saturated colors and exceptional fine detail in the rendering of the digital animation: every tuft of fur, weave of fabric, and beam of light leaps off the screen. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track is likewise delicately detailed in every channel of its immersive mix: ambient background sounds dance lightly around the potent fight effects, robust music and always crisply clear dialogue.
An audio commentary by directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne prove amiable if unexciting hosts in a track that tells the story of the film for those acutely interested in its development. The Blu-ray-exclusive Picture-in-Picture video commentary The Animator’s Corner reuses much of the audio commentary, supplementing it with behind-the-scenes footage, material from the featurettes, and some original video material. All in all, this is an excellent way to dig into the production while watching the resulting film unfold. Those with limited time (all but kids) may find this the best bet for learning more about the film. There's also a Trivia Track, also a Blu-ray exclusive, for the inexhaustible fan. Last among the Blu-ray exclusives is a BD-Live option pointing the way to additional web-hosted, downloadable featurettes.
The Inside Kung Fu Panda section kicks off with the enjoyable “Meet the Cast” (13:17, HD); though presented in a standard, depthless format, this featurette still manages to work in a lot of personality from the stars, particularly Jack Black, Randall Duk Kim, and James Hong. “Pushing the Boundaries” (7:07, HD) covers animation and character design, and the PSA “Conversation International: Help Save Wild Pandas” (2:00, HD) allows Black to crack wise to the kids, for a purpose.
Po’s Power Play Activities comprises the interactive games “Dumpling Shuffle” and “Dragon Warrior Training Academy," as well as “Learn to Draw,” which gives the option of several characters that, when selected, slowly take shape, allowing kids to follow along and draw.
The Sounds and Moves of Kung Fu section is a heckuva lot of fun for kids, only disappointing in that it's not more in-depth (parents will have to follow up with classes at the local strip mall). “Sound Design” (3:54, HD) introduces the sound crew playfully to explain the film’s audio. “Kung Fu Fighting Music Video by Cee-Lo” (2:29, HD) is irresistible, and comes accompanied by “Learn the Panda Dance” (4:32), a tutorial by choreographer Hi-Hat. “Do You Kung Fu?” offers tips for kids on each of the fighting styles: "Mantis Style" (1:22), "Crane Style" (1:38), "Viper Style" (2:09), "Tiger Style" (1:34), "Panda Style" (:55), "Monkey Style" (1:25), as well as a primer in "The Basics" (:34).
The Land of the Panda section may not be culturally rich as one might hope, but I guess it's a start for the littl'uns. “Mr. Ping’s Noodle House” (4:43, HD) features Alton Brown of Iron Chef America intoducing Mr. Chow executive chef Danny Yip, who demonstrates noodle making. “How to Use Chopsticks” (2:55, HD) has a title that says it all. Inside the Chinese Zodiac looks at the annual Chinese symbology, allowing one to select a year and learn about its corresponding animal and its traits, its friends, its rivals, and the famous people who share that animal sign. “Animals of Kung Fu Panda” (6:18, HD) is a nature-oriented featurette, and What Fighting Style are You? is an interactive questionnaire leading to an answer to the titular question.
Familiar from other Dreamworks Animation releases, the Dreamworks Animation Video Jukebox (HD) contains short music videos from earlier films, including Bee Movie, the Shrek films, Flushed Away, Over the Hedge, and Madagascar. Lastly, Paramount delivers HD Theatrical Previews for Monsters vs. Aliens and Madagascar 2: Escape from Africa.
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