Monday, December 28, 2009

Kung Fu Panda

Day 362 - 12/28/09 - Movie #362

BEFORE: My personal connection to this film is that Ethan Reiff, one of its writers, used to live right above me in a condo in Park Slope, Brooklyn, before he moved out to L.A. - so I knew about this film years before it was released. Ethan also co-wrote the movies "Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight" and "Bulletproof Monk", and the TV series "Brimstone" - so tonight he gets a shout-out from me.

THE PLOT: Po the Panda finds himself chosen as the Dragon Warrior despite the fact that he is obese and a complete novice at martial arts.

AFTER: Yay, Ethan! This was a really good one. Lots of action, and the voices were really well cast, especially Jack Black as Po the Panda. Dustin Hoffman was also great as Master Shifu, and so was Ian MacShane as Tai Lung, the snow leopard. Holy cats, that was Angelina Jolie as the Tigress, and Lucy Liu as the Viper? I recognized Seth Rogen (again?) as the Mantis and David Cross as the Crane, but didn't recognize Jackie Chan rounding out the Furious Five as the Monkey.

What I liked about this film was that it at first seemed very unlikely for a panda to learn martial arts, in fact it seemed like he was picked to be the Dragon Warrior at random, and a poor random choice at that. But then once his teacher found the proper way to motivate him (using food as a reward) he not only trained hard, he found a way to put his size and his innate panda skills to work for him. He retained his "panda-ness", and didn't have to conform the same rigid training method the other animals did.

And that's important, since the members of the Five all had different fighting skills - one wouldn't expect a monkey to fight like a tiger, or a snake to fight like a bird. And just because no one had ever seen "panda-style" kung fu before shouldn't mean that it is without merit or its proper place in the dojo.

If I had any complaint, it might be that the kung fu action was a little TOO slick, and overly complicated. Some fight sequences were so quick, it was sometimes hard to tell exactly what was going on. I guess when you're dealing with CGI warriors, you can literally make them do anything, without worrying about wires being seen, or actors getting hurt, or the laws of physics. The only limits on the fighting sequences were the imaginations of the animators, so why not go all out? I just would have preferred that they keep one foot (just one...) in the realm of reality so I could follow along.

So there's a great message (you know, for the kids) about following your dreams and having self-confidence, and succeeding in your own individual way, and the message doesn't get too preachy. I had an experience of my own today while giving a friend a tour of the animation studio where I work - and he was a little envious of my job, which is something I should think about when the daily grind gets me down. I've had some great opportunities, and I've taken advantage of them in my own way, and I should remember how lucky I've been, since there are other people who haven't had the same opportunities.

But still, what was the deal with the panda having a duck for a father? Obviously he's adopted, but the film never addressed this point. Will we be seeing Po's mysterious father in the sequel? The IMDB's synopsis for the sequel (due in 2011) says that Po will "discover the secrets of his mysterious origins". OK, we're cool...

RATING: 8 out of 10 dumplings


  1. Some movies leave me unsatisfied, even though they're Perfectly Fine. I'm left thinking of that "missing story meeting"...the one where a close-to-final draft of the screenplay or storyboard is performed and the consensus in the room is "Great! We've cracked it. We just need to fix a few problems, but I think we all know what they are:..."

    Such is "Kung Fu Panda." It's a fine movie. But little problems kept distracting me.

    1) Yup, the "Panda with a goose father" thing. It doesn't need to be resolved, but it needs to be acknowledged. It's the same thing as a gun that's loaded and hidden in the room during Act One and then never mentioned again. I mean, no wonder Mom's nowhere to be seen. That must have been one HELL of an egg.

    2) Po acquires enough skill to defeat a warrior who made quick work of the Furious Five, after just a week or two of training. I didn't buy it. Why is Po special? Throw us _something._ Just a couple of lines would have done the trick.

    For example:

    "Tai Lung only knows the five classical styles I taught him. Today, Po, we start to develop a sixth: Panda style."


    "Kung fu isn't about the skill or the strength of the fighter. It's about your ability to channel the will and the strength of Nature."


    "You come to me several steps ahead of any of my other pupils, Po: you already understand that you know nothing and don't deserve to be here."


    Po, a Kung Fu fanboy, has spent most of his life studying _books_ about Kung Fu. He knows all of the moves for attack and defense, technically...but he doesn't know the component (discipline, meditation, etc.) that turns academic knowledge into functional skill.

    3) Po _knows_ that the Dragon Scroll is merely symbolic. Why is he so desperate to keep it away from Tai Lung? We need a line like "I just need to lead him away from the Valley" or "I can stall him long enough for the village to evacuate."

    There's more, but you know what I mean. These things didn't ruin the movie for me, but they kept pulling me out of the story.

    I was pretty surprised that KFP beat "Wall*E" at the Annie awards. I guess I should chalk it up to the fact that the voters are all in the animation industry. To my eye, the Pixar movie was a far greater achievement. They pulled genuine, heartbreaking emotion from characters with minimal vocabulary, an almost completely non-human faces, and with a range of movement and expression limited to that of hard plastic and metal. To say nothing of the brilliant camera work.

    Did the voters think of Wall*E as pure technical work? Hmm.

    One last thing: the opening and closing titles left me hungry for more of that digitally-enhanced 2D style. I would have been pleased if the whole movie had been done that way.

  2. Andy, I completely agree. You summed up some of the minor (for me) problems I had with the movie.

    I think there are just a couple of lines of dialogue missing, as you suggested, that would have put the movie over the top.

    I think that we DO see "Panda Style" develop - like when Po climbs the shelves to get at the cookies, but wasn't sure how he did it. And the use of food as a motivator, battling with chopsticks over dumplings. And the way that Tai Lung bounced off of Po's stomach, which none of the Furious Five could have pulled off.

    I think if you put these things together, you've got "Panda Style", which may not have existed before, so Tai Lung had no defense against it - notice how Tai Lung's nerve attacks had no effect on Po, because of his panda bulk.

    Yes, it would have been really great for the movie to acknowledge this with a simple line or two.

    The Fanboy angle is also interesting, again, with a line or two this could have been developed. But if you let a Star Trek fanboy, for example, write the next Star Trek movie, you're going to get a very different result than if you hire a professional screenwriter, who knows about story arcs and character development.

    I prefer the Zen concept that the smartest man is the one who admits that he knows nothing. Po was just happy to be there, willing to take any punishment that Shifu dealt him, and that put him ahead of the game.

    Re: the Annie Awards - well, we know that's just a big popularity contest, now isn't it? I'm willing to open up that debate again about Wall-E's emotion, or lack thereof. I just didn't feel it.

  3. I read that Dreamworks "papered" the balloting -- meaning, that they bought memberships for everybody at the company and told them to "Vote with your hearts." Sour grapes from WALL*E fans, possibly. But I still think these two flicks have differences emblematic of their companies.