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Monday, June 09, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

I was in Washington DC last week and thought it would be nice to lay my eyes upon a real live panda in anticipation of seeing the new movie Kung Fu Panda. I know that doesn’t make any real sense. I’m not going to insist on visiting a real giant green muscle man before The Incredible Hulk comes out. I’ll settle for a dozen or so oiled up regularly hued muscle men, in various shades of tan, brown, black, white, and red. They can just wear green thongs as a substitute for being “hulky” all over. Hey, I like to do my research before I see a film. I won’t even begin to tell you what I did in preparation for Sex and the City. I kid.

So I sweltered through the blistering heat and beat a path towards Cleveland Park and the National Zoo where I found the “baby” of the panda family, Tai Shan, sitting out under a tree while his parents lounged unseen in the shade somewhere else. Somehow, Tai Shan was winning me over with his adorableness, as cute as the animated stills I’d already seen of Po, the lead character from
Fu Panda. That was until he stood up and turned his back towards me. Ewwww. The magic was over. Let’s just say that we can be thankful that animated pandas are lacking in certain bodily functions (and orifices that need cleaning). Now I wish I’d just stuck with letting my imagination being dazzled, which it definitely was when I finally saw Kung Fu Panda.

I loved, loved, loved
Kung Fu Panda! Did I mention I loved it? What a fun and exciting movie. I’m just a bit put off that it is being marketed as a “children’s movie” when it is actually a film for the whole family and is definitely as much fun for adults as for the younger set. As a matter of fact, the day I went I think there were as many adults in the audience as kids, a good sign that the public is smarter than the marketers at DreamWorks, who seem determined to limit its audience and shoot themselves in their collective, highly-paid, feet.

Kung Fu Panda is a terrific story for anybody who has ever felt like an outsider, and, really, isn’t that all of us at one time or another? In this case, the story is about Po (voiced with great exuberance by Jack Black; The Holiday), a roly poly panda who is tethered to his father’s noodle shop by family tradition even though he secretly dreams of a life as a kung fu warrior far away from a daily grind of making and selling noodle soup. Okay, so if you are over the age of ten you might be apt to spend a little time wondering how it is that Po has a father who happens to be a goose, but put that out of your head and just go with it. After all, these animals all talk and get along and none of them seem intent on eating the other, so PETA is happy and you should be too.

As fortune (and scripters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger tv’s “King of the King”) would have it, an elderly tortoise named Oogway (Randall Duk Kim; Year of the Fish), the High Llama at the Jade Palace, decries to kung fu Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman; Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium) that it is time to hold a challenge and celebration to bestow the long-awaited title of Dragon Warrior, a prophesied fighter who will protect and save the village below from the most heinous of evils. Needless to say, the current “Furious Five” who are there to do that job think that this is a title that belongs amongst their ranks, and so when Po manages to creatively (but quite accidently) crash his big butt into the festivities and onto the opponents already competing in the contest for the title, he is declared the winner and becomes new Dragon Warrior.

Shifu is sure a mistake has been made, but Oogway, in his most Zen-like manner, reminds the wee red panda that there are no accidents, a mantra he must remind the now even more Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie; Beowulf), Viper (Lucy Liu; Rise), Mantis (Seth Rogen; Superbad), Crane (David Cross; Alvin and the Chipmunks) and Monkey (Jackie Chan; The Forbidden Kingdom).

Despite their hard feelings, Po hangs in there and eventually even the most reluctant and unhappy Tigress has to admit the fat furball is not a quitter. Which is a good thing, because most of the funny parts of the movie come from the middle section of the film as we watch Shifu train Po to become a Jedi
Knight, er, I mean a kung fu warrior. Sorry. It’s just that you’ve got the old guy (okay, granted, he’s a tortoise, but he carries a walking stick and is all wrinkled and wise), and then you’ve got the “Master”, who may not be green, but he is about a foot-and-a-half tall, has pointy ears, and a cranky attitude. It’s an easy mistake. One BIG difference though is that Po’s enemy is no Tupperware-wearing asthma-sufferer but is, instead, a really bad ass snow leopard named Tai Lung (Ian McShane; The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising), who escapes from prison to claim what he feels is his rightful title as Dragon Warrior. As Scooby Doo might say, “Rutt Ro!”

As you might suspect, there are violent scenes in
Kung Fu Panda. It is (duh!) about martial arts after all, but don’t let that keep you from taking your kids. There are some incredibly good lessons to be found in the film, mostly about self-acceptance, self-reliance, courage, treating others with respect, honoring wisdom and age, as well as a host of others that permeate even the goofiest moments of the movie.

The artwork is masterful and includes backgrounds like something you’d see in the most exquisite Chinese paintings, while the animal characters are seamlessly merged into these landscapes with total 3-D believability. The only tiny bit I questioned was in the voice casting for some of the secondary roles. Granted, most are A-List names, which add great cache to the project, but I found myself wondering why Lucy Lui would want to play a snake. That seems so much more like David Cross’ territory to me. I don’t know why, but it does. And Seth Rogen as a mantis? I could see him as a bull or elephant, or maybe camel, something along those lines, but he’s such a big boy to play such a tiny bug. That ought to be wee Lucy Lui. As for Angelina Jolie, I figure with six kids in the house (two imminently due as I write this) she probably wants to maintain her status as a potentially lethal presence in the home for as long as possible just to maintain some kind of order amongst the chaos. Heck, if I was her, I’d be showing those kids Daddy Brad’s and her movie Mr. & Mrs. Smith while they are still in the crib just to get them with the program early on. Let them think their parents are a couple of hit-men and it will keep those kids in line from now through college. That’s my parenting advice right there, for what it’s worth.

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