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Where EAST meets the Northwest

ENTER THE PANDA. Unexpectedly chosen to fulfill an ancient prophecy and train in the art of kung fu, giant panda Po (above) begins his study under Master Shifu in DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda. The film, directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, is now playing at area theaters. (Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Animation LLC)

From The Asian Reporter, V18, #23 (June 10, 2008), page 1 & 16.

Kung Fu Panda destined for summer-movie greatness

Kung Fu Panda

Directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson

Produced by Melissa Cobb

Now playing at area theaters

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Animated films have advanced by leaps and bounds in the last decade or two, and not just in the quality of the computer graphics. The characters are voiced by superstars both current and past, the jokes and sophisticated plots appeal to both adults and children, and the total package has become worth the ever-rising price of big-screen admission.

Kung Fu Panda, the latest feature from DreamWorks Animation (creators of Shrek and Shark Tale), has all this and more in a hilarious and touching homage to kung-fu classics that combines breathtaking visuals with a heartwarming storyline to produce a film destined for greatness, just like its protagonist, Po.

Po the panda, overweight and clumsy, is the unlikeliest of martial-arts heroes, blundering about in his father’s noodle shop as he dreams of kung-fu greatness. When the Jade Temple announces the selection of the legendary Dragon Warrior, Po races to see an exhibition among the Furious Five for the honor of being chosen — after all, the action figures of these famous fighters are his most prized possessions. When Po is selected instead, he is amazed, but the Furious Five and their master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), don’t believe the chubby panda is worthy of the title.

Now truly furious, Shifu and the five martial artists try to force Po to quit with a combination of brutal training and cold shoulders. But the Temple’s kung-fu master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) insists Po contains the heart of the true Dragon Warrior, and Po is simply too star-struck and stubborn to bow out. And so Shifu struggles to find the strength of the ponderous panda, who seems more interested in eating and collecting souvenirs from his kung-fu idols. When the evil and formidable Tai Lung breaks out of prison to wreak vengeance on the Jade Temple, Po’s training achieves a new urgency. Before the inevitable showdown, Po must use the secret of the Dragon Scroll to become a real kung-fu master.

Kung Fu Panda is ostensibly aimed at kids, but adults will love this film, too, especially Asian film fanatics. Recognizing the familiar plotline is merely the first of the inside jokes awaiting kung-fu fans. The animals comprising the Furious Five are literal representatives of the well-known kung-fu animal styles, a nice twist on the familiar trope where each secondary character masters a different discipline.

Better yet, the animals are voiced by Asian martial-arts stars and popular American actors: Jackie Chan is eminently appropriate as Monkey and Lucy Liu is a hissing Viper, while Angelina Jolie purrs as Tigress and comedians David Cross and Knocked Up’s Seth Rogen lend their slacker tones to Crane and Mantis, respectively. These choices are as shrewd as picking Jack Black to give Po his voice, since the panda so closely resembles the comic man-children Black often plays. The coveted 18-to-34 demographic will love these familiar folks, just as aficionados will recognize the filmmakers’ nods to Asian martial-arts movies.

The brilliant one-against-all fights with slow-motion close-ups of slapstick violence evoke grindhouse classics, while the backdrops of craggy cliffs, peaceful glens, and swirling cherry blossom petals are pure Kurosawa-meets-Disney. Mystical fortune-cookie proclamations, legendary locations, and epic weaponry are all played for comic effect, as when Po gorges himself on the sacred Peaches of Wisdom or cavorts through the Jade Temple, breathtakingly cataloguing each artifact, from the Urn of Whispering Warriors to the Rhino Armor ("With Authentic Battle Damage!").

The martial-arts plot — unlikely novice races to become a master while the corrupted pupil approaches — also dovetails neatly with the typically inspirational children’s-movie message. Only when Po recognizes his true strength and develops his own "panda style" kung fu will he become the Dragon Warrior.

Other films have drawn on Asian classics to create contemporary films that reach beyond niche viewers, as Steven Chow did in Kung Fu Hustle, except that his sometimes over-the-top cartoonish violence was aimed at an older "tween" audience. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies are similarly derivative, but they seem like an awkward pastiche crammed full of his top 100 favorite kung-fu films, and are most definitely not for kids.

Kung Fu Panda seems far more original and also reaches a much broader audience than either Chow or Tarantino, though small children may be frightened by some of its more vivid action scenes. The movie’s ambitious scope — released in IMAX as well as standard format — and the fine detailing of the computer animation make this a visual spectacle well worth the financial setback of a family night at the movies. Let’s face it: it’s your destiny to see this fantastically fun film this summer, so take a lesson from Po and accept it with humility. Just like him, you won’t regret it.

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