Monday, February 15, 2016

Black is Black...Again...: "Kung Fu Panda" (2008)

This pretty-to-look-at, and instantly forgettable, animated film will keep the kiddies in the living room, and have a few parents giggling here and there.

Po (voiced by Jack Black) is a fat panda living in China and working in his father's (a duck voiced by the unbelievably prolific James Hong) noodle restaurant. He literally dreams of being a kung fu master, but keeps his father happy by trying to embrace the life of a restaurateur. Po's chance comes when the local martial arts masters Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) and Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim) decide it is time to name a powerful "Dragon Warrior," the ultimate kung fu warrior who will defeat all that is wrong with the world. The Furious Five, the original protectors and from whom the Dragon Warrior was to be chosen from, are appalled when the fat and uncouth Po is mistakenly (or was it preordained?) tapped by Oogway. As it so happens, a former student and another possible Dragon Warrior, Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane), has broken out of an isolated prison (he was the only inmate, being guarded by a thousand rhinos), and is headed back home to claim what he sees as rightfully his. Will Po and the Furious Five be ready to face down their former ally and friend? Do you have any doubt?

The Furious Five are voiced by: Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Lucy Liu, and Seth Rogen. These big stars (who the previews would lead you to believe have much bigger roles in the story) are interchangeable, and scanning the end credits, I had to remember which character was who. My wife, a huge Jolie fan who had seen this before, didn't know she was the voice of Tigress, probably the coolest of the Five. This is indicative of a much bigger problem- the film is obviously Black's and everyone else takes a back seat to his Chris Farley-reminiscent, fat-guy-falls-down pratfalls. Yeah, some of the visuals are funny, but the film quickly runs thin, and I wanted to know more about the elite fighting team. Letting an actor loose in the recording studio can result in animated magic ("Aladdin" isn't all that great when Robin Williams' Genie isn't onscreen), and Black pulls out all the stops, but Po isn't a character, he's just Jack Black in panda form. None of the supporting characters make much of an impression with the exception of Mr. Ping, Po's father. I recognized David Cross' voice, but I found myself asking the performers' names out loud when the end credits rolled- "THAT was Seth Rogen?" I also notice that not a lot of fuss was made about a bunch of white actors portraying Asian parts, whether they be imaginary talking animals native to China or not. The politics of box office returns trump hashtag politics every time....oh, wait, Po is breaking some more furniture and getting kicked in the nuts...

Why the positive review? Some of the action sequences, even for an animated film where anything is possible, are stunning. Tai Lung's prison break-out is both thrilling and funny, and made me miss Michael Clarke Duncan, who left us way too soon. There were shots of the surrounding Chinese scenery that looked like paintings, with the light and coloring taking my breath away...oh, wait, Po is shoveling food into his mouth because he's upset, and Shifu uses this to his advantage to train him...

This franchise starter is pretty harmless entertainment, unless it inspires your toddler to try acupuncture on the cat, but if it wasn't for the sequels then it would have ended up like another animated release from that year. Anybody remember "Bolt?"...yeah, me neither. "Kung Fu Panda" gets a big shrug. (* * * *) out of five stars.

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