STUDIO: Dreamworks Animated
MSRP: $22.99
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes
Directors’ Commentary
Meet the Cast
Pushing the Boundaries
• Sound Design
Kung Fu Fighting Music Video
Mr. Ping’s Noodle House
How to use Chopsticks
Conservation International: Help Save Wild Pandas
Dragon Warrior Training Academy
Printables & Weblinks
DreamWorks Animation Video Jukebox

The Pitch

It’s Crouching Bear, Hidden Eggroll.

The Humans

Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Ian McShane, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, James Hong, Dan Fogler, Michael Clarke Duncan, Randall Duk Kim.

The Nutshell

A lowly panda named Po (Black), who daydreams of being a kung fu master, literally has that dream thrust upon him as reality when the revered master, Oogway (Kim), chooses him to be the legendary Dragon Warrior.  Of course that then means that Po, who is more adept at eating and bumbling about than martial arts, must defend the valley from Tai Lung (McShane), a fearsome warrior who has been imprisoned for years and who has escaped to seek his revenge.

“Master Oogway, are you certain about choosing this Panda to be the Dragon Warrior?”
“He will bring balance to kung fu.  I have seen his Midichlorian count.”
“Uh, Master, that was his cholesterol level…”

The Lowdown

I was a little surprised by how much I liked Kung Fu Panda.  It deftly balances the cartoonish bumbling of the main character without it becoming unbearably cute and also the Chinese mysticism without it coming off as a bad fortune cookie.  The story and characters, particularly Jack Black as Po, are charming and it’s very watchable for adults, while certainly having everything that kids are going to just eat up like a panda with a stick of bamboo.  The animation is also simply stunning and jumps off the screen, even in this non-Blu-Ray version.  Writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who have written several episodes of King of the Hill, craft a touching and entertaining story that is fully realized by directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, who also have some animation experience, although this film is their first huge theatrical gig.

He may have been a snow leopard, but in his heart, Tai Lung was always a Black Panther…

The story centers around Po, who is trapped in a drab life working in his father, Ping’s (who happens to be a goose strangely enough) noodle restaurant.  Po dreams about joining his heroes, the Furious Five, Tigress, Mantis, Monkey, Viper and Crane, who are the local kung fu masters.  When the village gets word that Master Oogway is set to pick the storied Dragon Warrior – presumably from the Furious Five – the only thing Po can think about is getting to the Jade Palace to witness history.  However, circumstances (in this case a locked door and a chair full of rockets) end up making Po the chosen one, to the shock and dismay of the Furious Five and their master, Shifu (Hoffman). 

“Okay, so the guy whose ass I want you all to kick looks something like this…”

Shifu and the Five are determined to make the overweight and uncoordinated Po want to quit.  But things change when they learn that Tai Lung, who was Shifu’s most gifted – and dangerous – student escapes from prison.  He will return to claim the fabled Dragon Scroll, which is said to be the key to unlimited power, for himself.  Oogway convinces an extremely skeptical Shifu that his choice of Po as their defender was not an accident, and it’s up to Shifu to train Po to confront Tai Lung.  So Shifu does just that, in a humorous and unusual training sequence that involves martial arts and lots of food.

In retrospect, Po probably shouldn’t have had that Konlabos before his fight with Tai Lung.

One of the things that really clicks in the movie is Jack Black’s surprisingly understated portrayal of Po, who is one of the more likable characters to come down the pike in a while.  I like that Black, who can be one of the more hilariously manic actors out there, reigned in the character a great deal but didn’t dial it down completely.  He’s not what I would have expected when learning who was portraying the voice.  A couple of the other actors, particularly Jolie as Tigress and Hoffman as Shifu don’t fall into the norms you might expect when thinking of them voicing characters as well.  Directors Osborne and Stevenson in most cases, seem to go for less is more with the actors and its to the betterment of the story.  McShane is also quite good as the gruff Tai Lung.

What also works is the character design when it comes to the realization of the martial arts.  They’re crisp and the fighting styles and action are fun and inventive.  The climactic fight between Po and Tai lung is especially good, mixing in humorous choreography with some Matrix-style fighting. The story does follow the archetype of the reluctant hero who becomes a savior, but it’s still distinctive enough to not be unoriginal.  Kung Fu Panda is a fun chop socky adventure that both adults and especially kids should find highly enjoyable.

Secrets of the Furious Five is a straight-to-DVD and de facto sequel, where the majority of the story is in standard 2-D cel animation, bookended by the 3-D animation style of the original film.  It concerns Po being dumped by Shifu into teaching the intro to kung fu class to a bunch of rambunctious bunny children.  In order to get the class under control, Po tells them the back stories of the Furious Five and the lessons that each member had to learn in order to achieve true kung fu harmony.  These were patience for Mantis, courage for Viper, confidence for Crane, discipline for Tigress and compassion for Monkey.  Shifu returns to expect to find Po to be overwhelmed by the children, but is surprised by his abilities yet again when he sees them well-behaved and attentive. 

Needless to say, Rob Cohen told Jason Scott Lee he was gonna have to drop a few pounds before he got the role…

At only 24 minutes and with mostly traditional animation, Secrets is mostly forgettable, with only Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, David Cross and Randall Duk Kim lending their voices to the short.  Still, if your kids are dying for more of Po and his pals, this is an okay alternative until the inevitable sequel comes out.  Something to note, however, is that this title is only available in the standard DVD double pack, and not the Blu-ray

The Package

As mentioned, the look of this movie is stellar.  Some of the better computer animation I’ve seen recently, with plenty of vistas of the Chinese countryside to wow you.  Sound is also good in English, French and Spanish 5.1, with optional English 2.0 and matching subtitles.  There’s a directors’ commentary by Osborne and Stevenson, as well as several standard types of behind-the-scenes featurettes, including Meet the Cast, which has the footage of the actors behind the mic and interviews with them.  Pushing the Boundaries is a seven-minute visual effects and animation featurette, Sound Design runs four minutes and features the electronic sound work along with foley artists.  There’s a Cee-Lo Green music video for the theme song, Kung Fu Fighting and Mr. Ping’s Noodle House is a four-minute featurette with Iron Chef America host Alton Brown as he introduces a noodle making segment with a professional chef.  How to use Chopsticks is a quickie how-to segment featuring a young Chinese girl.  

Po may have been from China, but even he was amazed by the sheer number of kids Angelina Jolie was sporting…

Conservation International: Help Save Wild Pandas is a quick mention of Team Earth and their efforts to save wild pandas hosted by Jack Black. Dragon Warrior Training Academy is an interactive game of kung fu with five separate activity games.  DreamWorks Animation Video Jukebox is just that, a selection of music videos from the various DreamWorks Animation catalog of films including the Shrek movies and Madagascar.  Finally, Printables & Weblinks is DVD-ROM fare and three trailers round out the offerings.

Secrets of the Furious Five is mostly 2-D animation, with the 3-D animation bookends with Po, Shifu and the bunny children.  There are, however, several features, split into Po’s Power Play and Land of the PandaPo’s Power Play has a few games and some activities, including the Dumpling Shuffle and tutorials on how to draw the characters, as well as some DVD-ROM features.  Land of the Panda is about Chinese culture, with more activities.  There are features on the Panda Dance, the Chinese Zodiac, and fighting styles of kung fu.  Adults won’t find much worthwhile in Secrets, but it should keep the kiddies occupied for awhile.

8.3 out of 10