I’ve become intimately acquainted with a uninspired collection of barnyard animals over the years, a young adventurer who subtly perpetuates offensive stereotypes, and an unbelievably irritating sponge (with square pants, mind you) who apparently has no intention of teaching children anything of value. As my son has introduced me to the latest wave of preschool entertainment, I’ve come to one conclusion: kids have terrible taste. Thankfully, animation studios continue to deliver well-written, beautifully rendered family flicks like ‘Kung Fu Panda’ that appeal to kids and adults alike.
'Kung Fu Panda' tells the tale of Po (voiced by Jack Black), an overweight panda learning the ropes of his family’s noodle business from his father, a goose named Mr. Ping (James Hong). Even though Po doesn’t realize he’s adopted, he holds onto hope that his path will lead him to greater things than tending to his father’s customers. Rushing to see several iconic kung fu fighters, the clumsy panda inadvertently causes a wise sage named Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) to identify Po as the legendary Dragon Warrior. Unfortunately for Po, Oogway’s right hand, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), has trouble accepting such a bizarre declaration. Tasked with training the tubby bear, Shifu hopes that his more talented students -- Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Crane (David Cross) -- will intimidate Po and force him to quit. However, when a bitter criminal named Tai Lung (a scene-chewing Ian McShane) escapes from a fortified prison and plots his revenge on Shifu, it’s up to the chubby panda to save the day.
Going into ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ I had three pressing questions on my mind: will it appeal to my son, will it entertain me, and will its animated kung fu sequences amount to little more than window dressing or will they genuinely enhance the film? I was pleased to find a positive answer to all three. My son was an uncontrollable ball of joy, hopping around his seat as if all the sugar in the world had settled into his blood stream for ninety-two minutes. I can’t blame him. Whether I found myself chuckling at the film’s clever gags, oohing and ahing at its animation, laughing at its best jokes, or purely enjoying a fun flick with my kid, I was completely smitten with the story, characters, and animation. Best of all, as the resident kung fu geek in my circle of friends, I was quite impressed with the battle sequences. Tai Lung’s escape is brutal and hard hitting, the bridge fight (the film’s key action sequence) is fantastic, and Po’s showdown with Tai Lung balances the film’s humor, the character’s appeal, and the severity of the outcome.
The voice acting is exceptional as well. Love him or hate him, Jack Black keeps things sweet and innocent with Po, anchoring the film with his believably naïve performance. McShane matches Black’s vocal virtue with gravely snarls and menacing taunts, all effectively conveying his character’s malice and hatred. Lest we forget the rest, Hoffman, Jolie, and Chan (as well as other minor supporting cast members like Hong and Duk Kim) also sell their respective roles, effectively emoting while injecting the film with intensity, conviction, and wit. Granted, Liu’s performance is bland, Rogen and Cross are completely underused, and Michael Clarke Duncan (voicing a guard at Tai Lung’s prison) doesn’t have the best delivery, but they only pop up for a few minutes throughout the film and rarely detract from the work offered by the rest of the cast.
Even so, the quality that won me over in the end was simple: ‘Kung Fu Panda’ doesn’t rely on countless pop culture references like the majority of Dreamworks Animation productions have in the past. The film could have easily devolved into a series of obvious references, Hollywood tabloid jabs, nods to other movies, and a variety of other blatant distractions, but instead, the film continually takes the Pixar high road to concentrate on simple but meaningful dialogue, reliable but refreshing character interactions, and playful but engaging artistry.
Ultimately, ‘Kung Fu Panda’ is, in my humble opinion, the best animated film Dreamworks has produced, and the first Dreamworks feature that can legitimately go toe-to-toe with the films in Pixar’s canon. Whether you have children or whether you’re just a taller-than-average kid yourself, this one won’t disappoint.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Paramount and DreamWorks Home Entertainment releases this 3D Blu-ray edition of 'Kung Fu Panda' as a two-disc combo pack. The first is a BD50 disc compatible only with 3D Blu-ray players, and could not determine if it is region locked. The second is a DVD-9 carrying all the special features. At start-up, the disc commences with a preview for 'Puss in Boots – 3D,' and afterwards, opens with an animated main menu and music.
Three years since its initial Blu-ray release, 'Kung Fu Panda' remains one of the most exquisite, top-of-the-line video presentations available on the format. Immediately following the opening 2-D CGI sequence, viewers are treated to a stunning 2.35:1 picture frame oozing with a richly-saturated display of colors. Primaries, especially the green leaves on trees, are absolutely dazzling and pop from the screen while the softer pastel hues make up the rest with a wonderful panoramic sense, as if looking at a painting. Contrast is pitch-perfect with brilliant, crisp whites that never overpower the image, and blacks, likewise, are intensely inky and sumptuous without ruining delineation. Tai Lung's prison break is a prime example of the darkest, dingiest sequences matching the film's more serene and gorgeous moments.
The direct digital-to-digital transfer also comes with exceptional definition and clarity. Completely free of any blemishes, the picture reveals just how much time and effort was put forth by filmmakers in creating these animated images. Every nuance and intricate detail is exposed and plainly visible in spite of the dark-tinted glasses. Individual strands of hair on Shifu's or Tai Lung's face not only provide a sense of a natural environment, but seem to follow the movement and actions of their owners with fluid grace. Distinct features on stones, foliage and the many traditional buildings are razor-sharp and unmistakable. The fabric and stitching on each character's clothing is finely detailed with remarkable lifelike textures which add to the film's overall sense of realism.
Rather than being a hazard or an attempt to take advantage of a new technology (which is obviously the case with this latest release), this 3D presentation of 'Kung Fu Panda' actually adds another level of enjoyment to the movie. Immediately following the 2D opening, which is astonishing in its own right, we're struck with a beautifully layered image inside Po's bedroom. From there on, the rest of the transfer exhibits an extraordinary depth of field that sustains a breathtaking sense of a living space, as if characters truly live within a three-dimensional world. Objects and characters seem to move independently of each other, and the center portion of the screen shows background info in the far distance with excellent clarity and minimal to no crosstalk throughout. Along with the sequel, this 3D presentation should rightfully go down as one of the best 3D Blu-rays releases thus far.
The audio is identical to that found on the movie's 2D counterpart and is no slouch when it comes to delivering the very best. Rear activity is at a near constant, enveloping listeners with a terrific 360-degree soundfield. Whether we see characters talk outside or indoors, the sounds of distant crickets and the wind blowing through the leaves of trees are plainly heard, generating an amazing, realistic ambience that's very engaging. One of the best moments is again Tai Lung's prison escape as arrows and crumbling rocks rain down all around, filling the room with excitement and very discrete sounds. Pans and directionality are breathtaking and convincing, aided with an aggressively intense and highly responsive low-frequency effects that makes the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack tremendously immersive and action-packed.
The lossless mix also comes with an exceptional front area with a great deal more activity and dazzling channel separation. Movement between the three speakers is smooth and effortless, displaying a large, spacious image with lots of believable off-screen effects. The mid-range exhibits excellent clarity and detail during the film's more rowdy, dynamic sequences, allowing us to hear every minute sound in the original design. Dialogue reproduction is perfectly balanced, and each conversation is heard amid all the loud action occupying the other speakers. The subtle musical score of Hans Zimmer and John Powell is equally outstanding with appreciable fidelity and clean differentiation of the instruments, making the overall high-rez track is a reference quality listen.
Paramount/DreamWorks doesn't offer anything new in this package aside for a Trailer (HD) for 'Puss in Boots – 3D' and a DVD copy of the movie.
Thanks in large part to Jack Black's oaf-like mannerisms and imbecile shticks sustaining an original tale about discovering the potential within, 'Kung Fu Panda' is surprisingly one of DreamWorks finest efforts. Charming, heartwarming and overall hilarious, the CGI-animated family film is a genuine pleasure to watch. The 3D Blu-ray comes with a stunning, reference quality presentation, both in video and audio. Supplements are sadly missing, but contained on a separate DVD copy of the movie, making the package, in the end, a great purchase.