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Kung Fu Panda / Secrets Of The Furious Five

DreamWorks Animation (June 6 2008), DreamWorks/Paramount Home Entertainment (November 8 2008), 2 discs, 92 mins plus supplements, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated PG, Retail: $34.99

Storyboard:

In ancient China, Po feels out of place working at his Dad’s noodle bar, wanting to join the secret Furious Five team of martial art masters. Only thing is…Po’s a panda, not a creature usually associated with stealth, agility and kick-ass moves! However, believing in himself gets him only so far, when the bitter snow leopard Tai Lung returns to exact revenge on those who locked him away. With his training going less well than hoped for, will Po be able to join the team in time to make a difference?

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The Sweatbox Review:

“Prepare for awesomeness” the posters blurted out earlier this year on Kung Fu Panda’s theatrical release, and get ready for “Panda-monium”! Many thought this was the often over frantic hype of a standard DreamWorks marketing campaign hitting the usual high gear, but there was a real surprise waiting in the wings: Kung Fu Panda, despite the star voices, showy premieres and commercial bombardment in the advertising and press, had been gaining some unusually strong word of mouth: could it be there was a real film in here? The answer, for anyone that has seen it, is a resounding “yes!”, and one that easily navigates around the hype to deliver a film that, while it may not beat expectations, certainly comes awfully close to totally fulfilling them.

That it all comes together so well is easily definable as the work of co-directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, who seem to have stuck their necks out to prove DreamWorks can do original, different work that moves away from the usual fart gags, talky celebrities and pop culture references and soundtrack friendly music cues. With Kung Fu Panda purposefully staying away from those conventions as much as possible, the Studio actually seems to have found their Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton, two emerging feature talents that should be now allowed to stretch and develop their own projects instead of churning out the five (count ’em, five!) more Kung Fu Pandas that head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg quickly announced after their movie shifted some $60 million worth of theater tickets during opening weekend.

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To have them wind up making Panda after Panda would be a crying shame: Stevenson and Osborne are clearly the two most intelligent fellows to come along in a long time (one only need listen to their audio commentary provided on the disc to learn why) and it’s clear that this Panda has already done the job. Yes, it’s true that there is a wealth of backstory and mythology that they’ve created here that could well stretch to one further film – with Po’s eventual situation resolved by the film’s end there’s perhaps room for the Dragon Master to join forces with the Furious Five for an ultimate adventure – but they’d probably do well to move on quickly and maybe just oversee future outings. There’s still a risk there too, of course, in that other directors would perhaps not adhere to the careful rules laid down in this film and that the sequels could very soon become parodies of themselves. Just look what’s happened to Shrek.

It’s very important to realise that Kung Fu Panda is never a spoof. It has moments of comedy – lots of them and very funny at that, to be sure – but it’s not a film that mocks Chinese traditions or the kinds of films we might usually associate with that culture. It’s an animated reaction to the likes of Hero and The House Of Flying Daggers, a kind of cartoon Crouching Panda, Hidden Dragon, if you will, which wouldn’t have been a bad alternate title given the plot. I’m sure there were pressures to make their film more like Kill Bill or to pick out the more jokey aspects of the Shaw Brothers’ work, but Stevenson and Osborne seem to have stuck to their guns, even if there’s one moment in which Hans Zimmer and John Powell’s score gets awfully close to Tomoyasu Hotei’s Battle Without Honor Or Humanity, otherwise known as the Kill Bill music, which was probably used in the temp track and only narrowly edged out by either a specific choice to keep the score original or that the rights to Hotei’s track were too high.

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I’d bet it was the former, because if anything it’s not that Kung Fu Panda looks like it had to skimp on the budget. Though we’ve seen similar symbolic iconography before, most notably in Disney’s Mulan, there’s never been a Western-ised animated feature that looks quite like this, or at least that Kung Fu Panda could be compared to, and that’s not just down to the choice of CG over traditional animation. Indeed, the movie opens – courtesy of ex-DWs animator James Baxter, who went off to launch his own Studio – with just such a traditionally animated sequence, an anime set up that’s so clean and defined that it looks like a hybrid of techniques and Flash animation. It’s a vastly fun few minutes where our hero, Po the Panda, dreams that he is a member of China’s superhero fighting squad, the Furious Five, named for the five deadly venoms, though four of them are also Tai Chi moves, the last (Mantis) being, I think, a Yogic exercise.

It’s this opening that suggests Kung Fu Panda is going to be something different from anything – especially from the DreamWorks stable – that’s come before. The anime style is easy to spoof, but again that’s not the name of the game: the intent is to plus that style of work and mix it with high-end production methods. That said, there is still a nod and a wink to the classic Hong Kong low budget feel to the camerawork; an early pull back to establish a temple is as wonky as they come, and thus so perfect! This cleverly creates the world in which we’re about to spend ninety or so odd minutes, while bringing us neatly from the kind of filmmaking we’re perhaps routinely expecting given the subject matter, before a crashing thud – a literal and figurative transition – brings us into Po’s real world of beautiful, hyper real CGI. Kung Fu Panda is certainly one of the best looking of the DWs films; one gets the impression that their most experienced artists begged to work on this rather than another Shrek!

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Again the tone and sheer essence of the film is clearly down to the directors, who in their commentary reveal themselves to be a wildly thoughtful pair whose each and every choice in the film has been obviously discussed and planned minutely and with a real intelligence dictating the final vision. Their work ensures that Kung Fu Panda is deeply rooted in its own mythology – the extent of this only really made known in their remarks in the supplements, which exposes how rich a world they were intent on establishing. It’s sufficiently impressive enough to wonder if it might withstand the number of follow-ups Katzenberg is aiming to deliver to theaters… They manage to maintain a fine balance between the high drama and broad comedy that plays out: when Stevenson and Osborne, again in their commentary, remark that there are “no humans in our world”, you know I must admit that I hadn’t really noticed, such is the strength of their created animal personalities.

Part of the success of Kung Fu Panda’s characters is the voice work, of course, and despite the star wattage, the casting seems to have been more finely tuned to the sensibilities the story demands. You may balk at the sound of marquee names like Jack Black and Angelina Jolie, both previously featured by the Studio in the loud and messy Shark Tale, but never have they perfectly complimented their characters more. I’ve not always been the hugest fan of Black, but he simply continues to surprise and impress me every time even though, for some reason, I’m not sure I can actually warm to him completely as a person. Here he forgoes the not always irresistible showboating and over confident young man approach to reveal a genuinely vulnerable side that gives Po some needed extra layering, while superstar Jolie, as Tigress, the most prominently featured of the otherwise underused Furious Five, actually doesn’t get enough lines to tip the film over in her favor (though to her credit she also never tries to overplay her role either). Kung Fu Panda is just that: it’s Po’s story, about a panda bear who wants to be a master of Kung Fu.

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Joining them is a veritable cast mixing more big names (Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu, man of the moment Seth Rogen as Mantis) with more unexpected but welcome choices Jackie Chan (as Monkey), Lucy Liu (Viper), David Cross (Crane), James Hong (Po’s Dad, a goose named Mr Ping), and previously light entertainment Brit Ian McShane continuing to make a new career for himself in American villain roles, here making the kids tremble as Tai Lung. Here his slow, calm and measured deep rumble plays perfectly against Black’s hyper, higher register, and while Tai Lung never really gets to do anything too mean on camera, his backstory is well laid out and the lengths gone to in keeping the character imprisoned are as impressive as they are effective…until he breaks free, of course!

Again not overbalancing his role, Hoffman is great, a little too Yoda like in appearance and the mentor part he’s been given, but putting a slightly new spin on things even while holding down the gravitas. As his mentor, Randall Duk Kim’s Oogway is easily the most successful of the characters in spirit and animation; a little wobble given to his neck muscles really brings him to life and suggests a frailty that, when his arc plays out, is an unleashing of poignancy that’s been welling up since we first met him. Kung Fu Panda is full of such neat little moments, scenes that might not have been missed had they not been there, but just add those extra fine layers of characterisation and suggestive plot points that are often being set up for a greater pay off later on.

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The story itself is as basic as they come, some notions about finding oneself and learning to believe in who you really are, but never before has such a simple message been so multi-layered! The characters again begin their journeys from very different places than one would expect: Po is a Furious Five fanboy; despite the Five’s lack of faith in him, even Shifu has to admit that the kid knows his stuff, even if he does need to sit, focus and vigorously train! And just as Po learns about himself, the seemingly perfectly tuned Shifu and the Five learn just as much about themselves in their own way, finding that they shouldn’t underestimate others and that even when working as a skilled team, an outsider’s viewpoint or extra hands can come in awfully useful. Kung Fu Panda really isn’t interested in diverting from its core aim, and in screening the movie a couple of times for this review, I have to say I found it hard to fit any flab in it.

True, some of the situations may feel like things we’ve seen before, but that’s formulaic filmmaking, of which Kung Fu Panda strives to swerve around as much as possible for a big budget Studio production. I’d have liked to have seen more of Po’s training – it seems the entire story has been building towards this and it’s over in a montage, even if time seems to be suspended and Po trains through many seasons. The emphasis of the sacred Scroll, and what it means to Po, is likewise a lift from Dumbo and his trust that a magic feather will see him through any obstacle, the Scroll’s ultimate message here a similar one to learn to believe in yourself without resting hope and faith in otherwise meaningless objects. Very uniquely for a major animated Studio feature, there’s a lot more where that came from.

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The film’s philosophy extends to Kung Fu Panda’s very ambience too; it can’t be coincidence that this is DreamWorks’ first CinemaScope styled widescreen picture since the traditionally animated Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron. As such, it’s suitably epic, with the production essentially stepping up to the plate to create a wide scope and fill the frame with things that we simply haven’t seen in a DWs animated movie before. Textures and lighting still can’t break away from that DreamWorksy feel, some interaction between characters and their environments isn’t always perfect, and the sight of reused characters and cycles reveal the constraints imposed in creating huge scenes, but one is easily able to overlook these small (and surely unnoticeable for most) caveats, just for the sheer multi-level entertainment value on offer.

Kung Fu Panda finally sees DreamWorks playing on the same technical and story fields as Pixar so effortlessly does. Antz may be remembered as the better of the two competing Studios’ bug movies, and Shrek 2 a considerable achievement that remains the biggest grosser from either’s library of computer generated films, but DWs has never been able, for all its successes, to capture the lighting in a bottle that practically guarantees a fresh time out with each Pixar picture. With Kung Fu Panda, the Studio seems to have found that throwing out ten years worth of commercial aspirations for what really matters – a solid story, competently told – can equal just as big a success. Forgetting the awfulness of Shrek The Third and building on the rebound energy provided by Bee Movie, Stevenson and Osborne’s movie makes it three-for-three in this year’s Oscar worthy run of releases from the majors, easily standing shoulder to shoulder alongside Pixar’s WALL-E and Blue Sky’s Horton Hears A Who.

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It will be interesting not only to see which will win, if indeed all three are nominated, but where each of these companies go from here. Pixar’s choice is obvious: they can only go Up, whereas Blue Sky are resorting to another in their safe Ice Age franchise. DreamWorks seem unfortunately to be reverting to juvenility for their next, Monsters Vs. Aliens, which feels like a step back from the levels they’ve reached here. So soak up Kung Fu Panda, folks, as it could well be another ten years before we get something as special as its like again. Proof of that can be found in its closing moments: stick around post the wonderful traditionally animated credits and you’ll find a moment that simply wraps up everything that Kung Fu Panda is all about.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Being released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc, fans inexplicably need to go the standard definition route in order to pick up the much vaunted Secrets Of The Furious Five bonus disc, which includes a new animated featurette – and not the “DVD full-length movie premiere” that some announcements made the title sound like. We’ll get to that as its rightful place as a second disc shortly, but first let’s look at what the Kung Fu Panda disc itself has for us. DreamWorks always pack their releases with a good dose of production supplements and fun for families, and if you’re going the double-pack DVD route that bundles KFP with the Furious Five disc you surely won’t be disappointed.

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As the disc plays for the first time, we’re offered a peek at Monsters Vs. Aliens, set to be unleashed next March. For some reason, the movie hasn’t yet fully registered on my radar, so this was the first I’d really seen of it, and I can’t say, coming after the magic that is Kung Fu Panda, that I am at all impressed so far. It’s a return to the pop-culture references of DreamWorks’ past – think 50s alien invasion and monster movies – complete with the usual potty humor: within seconds of the trailer commencing we’ve had a backside gag. Everyone, including what sounds like Kiefer Sutherland doing an over the top southern General, shouts, yells and yelps and it just seems to be the noisy kind of film we’d usually associate with the Studio. Unfortunately, from this preview, Monsters Vs. Aliens looks to be as lame a collection of moments we’ve seen from other films as its central concept is brilliant; indeed, early accusations that this was nothing more than DWs’ own answer to The Incredibles seem to bear out in the tone being sought: substitute superheroes for some leftovers from Monsters, Inc and you’ll get the idea. There’s actually little about it that suggests this couldn’t be done in live-action, though had it come to the screen in that medium, one imagines a mess of Mars Attacks! proportions, which I actually found to be genius and which Monsters Vs. Aliens strangely seems wanting to be, though with highly rubbery animation. I’ve a question, though…why isn’t it Monsters Vs. Giant Killer Robots? Or Monsters Vs. Aliens Vs. Giant Killer Robots? Because that’s really what they are…or are another five sequels already on the cards?

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A further preview for the clumsily titled Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, now in theaters, and bizarrely a “Coming Soon” spot for Secrets Of The Furious Five, play before we reach the main menu, which delightfully appropriates James Baxter’s traditionally drawn style for the backgrounds and menu transitions. Additionally, silhouettes of Po in various Kung Fu moves are used as the highlighter on the main menu…really nice touches accompanied by Zimmer and Powell’s vigorous scoring. First of the supplements is a full-length Filmmakers’ Commentary track with directors Mark Stevenson and Mark Osborne. Having two very obviously bright sparks bouncing off each other is always a commentary bonus, and here the remarks come thick, fast and very, very smart; the sheer amount of knowledge and care the two have for their craft and their movie is evident throughout. It was nice to hear them evoke the ethos of Walt Disney in going for a truly scary villain – something Pixar has yet to handle genuinely satisfactorily – as well as where they didn’t always think they hit the mark: the shadowed introduction of Po’s goose father being an example, though I did get it, boys! I’ve mentioned a few remarks on the commentary above, but I’ll repeat that the directors’ chat really does make makes us appreciate and admire their film even more. Stevenson and Osborne are charming, and clearly a good team – especially after four years of working on the movie – and such a match that they often complete each other’s sentences! A terrific discussion of the multi-layering and hidden messages nearly every shot contains, this is an intelligent and precise discussion that impresses as much as it also reveals many alternate choices and abandoned concepts. Classy.

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Often a complaint with animated titles is a total lack of attribution to the vocalists, but with so many celebrity cast members on board in their films, this is an area that DreamWorks never disappoints. Meet The Cast is just what’s required, a thirteen minute peek into the recording booths to join Black, Hoffman, Jolie and all behind the microphone and find out how pleased they all were to be a part of the production. There’s a genuine sense of joviality in the room, especially when the attention’s on Black, and soundbites from everyone involved make for a quality little featurette. Pushing The Boundaries does the usual explaining of how Kung Fu Panda sees things coming to the screen that could never have been done before, an empty boast that seems to greet all these kinds of films nowadays, pulling us from model rigging to , all helpfully endorsed by DWs’ technology partners Hewlett-Packard as the constant HP logo on the title boards reminds us. However, flippant comments aside, this is an otherwise interesting seven minutes given over to the technical side of the production, and makes the most of its time in providing a glimpse at the various stages of animation.

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Sound Design takes another look at an often undervalued aspect of an animated film, its soundtrack. King Kong and Transformers’ Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl were the go-to guys in charge of the Kung Fu Panda editing and mix, and this is a fun, four minute look at their job…surely grown men shouldn’t be doing this for a living!? The music video for Kung Fu Fighting remains the one standard DreamWorks element in the film: Kung Fu Panda itself closes with this oh-so original choice of track over its end credits, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the directors had to fight to prevent Po, Shifu and the Furious Five from breaking into song in a final disco montage sequence! Relegated to the credits, it’s not so bad, though the choice of going for a cover version rather than Carl Douglas’ original can only be attributed to being able to promote Cee-Lo Green and Jack Black as performers since this new edition adds very little, not even a new rap section that seems to be the “hip” thing to include these days. The inevitable influence of Kill Bill is again found in the two and a half minute clip, which features your typical Kung Fu master surrounded by yellow-suited kids intercut between Green, and Black’s joke moves from the Panda teaser trailers.

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A couple of loosely tied featurettes come next, both more focused on Chinese culture than the movie itself. Mr Ping’s Noodle House (4:40) features neither Mr Ping nor his Noodle House, being a look at how Danny Yip whips up a stack of noodles at the Mr Chow restaurant in Beverly Hills. One could complain this has little to do with the main feature, but Food Network host Alton Brown keeps it highly entertaining, and Yip’s process is simply captivating and, yes, awesome to watch. How To Use Chopsticks is a similar group of hints on how to much Chinese style, and while it’s not as much fun, one can hardly grumble at the three minutes given over to what could well be something fun for families with small Kung Fu Panda fans to try next time they order take out! Conservation International: Help Save Wild Pandas could have been an all-too PC announcement, but the appearance of Jack Black really lifts this into a poignant plea that never becomes preachy. A perfectly well judged two minutes, and as such I’d hope for a good uptake to the promoted website.

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The Dragon Warrior Training Academy game reuses animation and sound from the movie, as well as new voiceover, to run the participant through a group of five furious challenges: Master Monkey’s Seven Talon Rings, Master Mantis’ Gator Gauntlet, Master Crane’s Jade Tortoise, Master Tigress’ Swinging Claws and Master Viper’s Field Of Flames. Since all of these activities require a greater level of interaction than a DVD remote can offer, there’s really no way to play, as the video has been pre-determined and timing any moves must be in accordance with what’s been prepared. As such, you’re not only not playing the game, but are wasting a lot of time trying. Sadly redundant.

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When inserting the disc into a PC drive, a selection of DVD-ROM printables and weblinks will autoplay, a DreamWorks tradition on their animated titles, which despite my own sparing use for them, I am always pleased to see the Studio including, and here there are a ton of actually really strong options, from HP Printables including guides to building your own dolls, characters, embroidery, pop-up cards and much, much more, to the Land Of The Panda, which features a wealth of highly entertaining pages which might you might even learn a thing or two about Chinese culture. What’s very, very nice is that most of these are physical activities that don’t require any high-tech gadgetry…an honestly concrete selection of things that parents and children and their friends can enjoy and get something out of. A really impressive take on a very welcome bunch of additions.

The old (and I mean old) and pointless DreamWorks Animation Video Jukebox is of course still in force, merely here eating up disc space just to promote other DWs titles on DVD while using the supposed allure of source music written by other people. The three Shreks, Shark Tale, Madagascar, Over The Hedge, Flushed Away and Bee Movie all pop up, not one of them making much sense as clips out of context, but not mattering as long as the “own it on DVD” tagline is driven home again and again. Finally, the same selection of Trailers that open the disc are selectable from their own option. Nope, Monsters Vs. Aliens still doesn’t look any better, though its one very funny line did make me laugh again.

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Secrets Of The Furious Five Bonus Disc
If the supplements described so far were all Kung Fu Panda were treated to, then apart from a theatrical trailer or two, I’d have to admit to finding the package perfectly formed, but wait – there’s more! A now standard staple in the animated DVD wars, as if the movies just weren’t enough, is the addition of a newly created short film featuring the characters. With Kung Fu Panda this is more than just an extra bullet point on a sticker on the front of the box, it’s an entire second disc of its own, though whether it merits that distinction is really a question of marketing and being able to hike the price of the set up. Placing what is ostensibly just another extra on a separate disc is a ploy that’s worked for DreamWorks in the past on international releases: both Madagascar and Over The Hedge ridiculously had their bonus shorts included separately in “two-disc” sets that were marked up higher than their standard counterparts in the UK, and the practice seems to have finally come back to the States.

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For those who felt the Furious Five were perhaps underutilized in the main feature, these Secrets offer up a little more of those characters, though quite how is a little bit of a cheat: set ostensibly after the events of Kung Fu Panda, Secrets is mostly told in flashback form. The short opens (reusing as the film’s custom DreamWorks logo) as we join Po and Shifu en route to a martial arts training session for some of the young bunnies we’ve seen in the feature film’s crowd scenes. Trying to bring calm to the unruly youngsters, Po settles them down to reveal the real strength behind the Furious Five’s prowess: patience, courage, confidence, control and compassion. Of the principal cast, Hoffman, Black and Cross reprise their roles, though Hoffman disappears a couple of minutes in, leaving Po with the kids, and the short doesn’t really deliver on “more” Furious Five as the flashbacks take some of them back to being kids in training themselves, negating the need for some of the bigger names to return in place of the sound-alikes used here.

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The flashbacks are pretty fun, but they also feel a little long, taking a little bit away from the Five’s invulnerably cool personalities and essentially re-treading the Po arc five times over for each of them to prove themselves in opposing circumstances. There’s much to enjoy in the animation, however, which once we get away from Po and the bunnies has been rendered in the traditionally animated Baxter designs under the direction of DWs storyboard artist Raman Hui, here marshalling additional animation from outsourced companies Reel FX, who handle the CG aspects, and traditional animation outfit Film Roman, who manage to bring a very authentic theatrical feel to the well disguised limited animation methods. It looks great for what is fundamentally bonus content, but not content that actually feels too new and exciting; Po’s stories may thrill the young bunnies but they feel like further backstory, or deleted moments excised from being expanded upon in the feature itself. At 24½ minutes (including two minutes of credits), Secrets Of The Furious Five does find itself in danger of dragging and might have been more power packed at half the length; despite the good sense of fun, it’s a little strained.

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As for the rest of the disc, well, there’s nothing much of note that couldn’t have been dropped in order to simply place Secrets Of The Furious Five on the same disc as its inspiring feature film. Space not being an issue (even the KFP contents don’t use up the full storage capacity on that disc), there’s no reason why this short couldn’t have been featured either on the first, or as a more spread out, more official two-disc set, with the feature given more room to breathe on disc one and the film’s extras moving to disc two along with the Furious Five. Also, while the feature disc does oddly get a trailer for Secrets, that bonus disc doesn’t reciprocate with a trailer for Panda…no biggie given the promotion it received on other DWs DVDs, but still meaning that such a basic extra as this is missing between both discs, which even use the exact same menu design.

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There’s a bit of an attempt to add a little extra value, but it’s mostly filler: under the heading Land Of The Panda, Learn The Panda Dance has choreographer Hi-Hat explaining that “the new movie Kung Fu Panda has a new dance”, though it’s the first I’d heard of it! Ahh, I see…she’s going to show us the moves to the video for the film’s Kung Fu Fighting cover track. I guess this isn’t a waste of four and a half minutes for those ready to jump up and dance, and Hi-Hat does make for a genuinely friendly and easy to follow instructor. Do You Kung Fu? invites mischief and danger by teaching us a few moves – as well as a disclaimer basically advising that we don’t try this at home, begging the question of what the point of it is? As a primer for the discipline, it isn’t a bad start, and some kids may find themselves wanting to learn more, but in an average of two minute clips these are more of a simple overview than solid instruction.

Inside The Chinese Zodiac explains the importance of animals in Chinese culture and how you can determine which creature it was the Year of from a listing of calendar dates. Thoughtfully, DreamWorks have bothered to trail this all the way back to 1924, so that anyone up to the age of 84 may discover the animal within, and future-proofs the disc up to 2019. Selecting the year of one’s birth offers up not just which animal was dominant in the Chinese Zodiac that year, and the correct pronunciation in that language, but additional (and quite spooky!) information on your traits, companions and rivals, as well as famous faces that match your animal (I’m happy to report I share a bond with Walt Disney)! Animals Of Kung Fu Panda is a quick-paced six minute look at the real-life creatures behind the ones depicted in the film, and their corresponding links with martial arts, while wrapping up this section is What Fighting Style Are You?, a personality profile that matches given answers against the one of the Furious Five the participant mostly resembles (I came back as the wise and strong Viper).

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Po’s Power Play is a bunch of two activities and a cheat, none of which feel anything more than token additions. Learn To Draw spends a lot of time basically building up Po and the Five, though we have to wait until we select Po to actually come across animator James Baxter and hear his tips. All the others are “automatically” created onscreen without an animator, at an average of five minutes a pop, but as a guide it’s not much fun to sit and watch. Once Baxter arrives things are racked up a notch, for eight or so fascinating minutes. The Dumpling Shuffle would be great fun – try and keep up with which bowl the dumpling is under as they sift around – if it weren’t for the fact that there are only two routines, making it all too easy once one’s played a couple of times. Thirdly, the Pandamonium Activity Kit is the cheat: it’s just a prompt to load the disc into a computer player.

Filling up (a bit) more space on this second disc are these DVD-ROM activities, which again autorun in a PC drive, but don’t get too excited…the same two options as on the Kung Fu Panda disc are repeated (that’s a lot of stuff, but needed twice!?), in addition to three more options. A Kung Fu Panda Sound Machine looks fun, where one can remix their own versions of scenes from the film, while there are also demo levels for the Kung Fu Panda Video Game and a Madagascar Escape 2 Africa Mini-Game. All of these required some installation set up of the kind that usually crashes my system, but I did attempt to load the Sound Machine, which then didn’t want to play ball, taking forever to load the clips in. I’m not much of a gamer either, so I skipped the demos, but they may entice some to pick up the complete games and I suppose they’re valid inclusions to a point.

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Despite the slim extra-extras, the real reason to slap down another fistful of dollars is for the additional disc in the two-set, which may or may not ultimately be worth it just for a 22 minute short. Those into hi-def are less open to options: quite why the Secrets Of The Furious Five couldn’t have been included with the Blu-ray, even as a standard definition disc in a paper sleeve, is beyond me, but one thinks it must have something to do with Katzenberg’s 320 other Kung Fu Panda movies in the works, allowing for a double-dipping at a future date. My basic advice on either format: borrow a friend’s copy if you have to see it, but it’s not worth owning twice. It might have also been neat to see a little on Baxter’s animation contributions as well, but overall this is a very decent line-up of supplements, especially the surprising amount of DVD-ROM content. The new short isn’t anything to shout home about, but as a set the two discs do provide the goods.

Case Study:

kfupanda-23.jpgIt has to be said that the “Panda-monium Gift Set” comes more than a little awkwardly packed. Instead of a standard two-disc case, or even two cases wrapped together, or perhaps a boxed set that houses both discs, Kung Fu Panda is bundled with its Furious Five bonus disc packed together side-by-side, much like the Aladdin video sequels were, if anyone remembers those. A single length of shrink-wrap holds the two cases together at the ends, meaning that while the artwork extends pretty neatly from Kung Fu Panda over to the Furious Five case, it all falls apart once the wrap has been sliced up and the two discs get shoved on a shelf. There is a neat consistency between the two sleeves but be aware that beneath the wrap there are a multitude of gunky stickers further holding the two cases together – something to think about before ripping them apart as they’ll leave a messy residue, though careful (and slow!) prising apart will keep you fairly clean.

Two further stickers on the shrink wrap itself point to the contents inside, promising “101 Awesome Things To Do and See!” There are no further inserts and the disc art for both is the usual flat gray that’s been sported by DreamWorks and Paramount titles for a while now. The artwork is generally punchy and keeping in tone with the theatrical approach in tone, though somehow connecting the two cases together, or even better yet a box set, would have felt more deluxe. A pair of inserts in the KFP case promote a Chuck-E-Cheese deal, HP’s new PC, a Po mobile game and the premiere of The Penguins Of Madagascar coming to Nickelodeon in March 2009. Be notified that the main feature disc lists an inappropriate running time of 88 minutes instead of the actual 92, and that the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is also incorrect…Kung Fu Panda in the double-pack is widescreen-only, in the intended full 2.35:1 CinemaScope styled frame width.

Ink And Paint:

Offered in its theatrical presentation of 2.25:1, Kung Fu Panda opens up the DreamWorks animated ratio for the first time, showing off a truly epic look that’s more in keeping with the subject matter. The film is full of wild extremes for an animated picture, from very shadowy, red and blue tinged scenes of darkness, to ultra bright, colourful scenes of sunlit celebration, and this DVD transfer handles it all terrifically, as would be expected from a digital conversion. There really isn’t even a hint of compression here, and color bleed is non-existent: this is one of the best of the recent animated discs I’ve seen. It’s every so slightly soft, but this seems to be a design aesthetic in the cinematography…goodness knows how much better this could look in high-definition, but Blu-ray owners shouldn’t have any reason to worry that the image on that disc won’t be anything less than stellar.

kfupanda-24.JPG

Following suit, Secrets Of The Furious Five comes presented in its intended widescreen video ratio of 1.78:1 and looks appropriately sharp, comparable to the feature even if mosquito noise is faintly more evident, particularly around text.

Scratch Tracks:

A top-notch 5.1 Dolby mix supports the awesomeness in the visual department. With the cream of the crop of sound designers working on the film, and a multitude of opportunities to be had with the various swishes, whooshes, whacks and thwacks needed in the soundtrack, Kung Fu Panda is great fun where the audio easily makes up half of the overall entertainment factor. An EX or DTS track might have shaken the room but this Dolby mix has some pretty cool moves of its own: turn it up loud and enjoy! English 2.0 is also bundled in, as are 5.1 French and Spanish dubs and subs.

Equalling the video aspects, Secrets Of The Furious Five packs a punch with a Dolby 5.1 track of theatrical quality, as well as English 2.0 and English, French and Spanish subtitles (there are no foreign language dub options).

Final Cut:

Is Kung Fu Panda better than any of the other major CG animated pictures out there this year? That’s a tough call, and I’d have to leave it as open to debate as the Big Three have all had good and not so good things about them. But Panda is certainly the best from the DreamWorks CG stable since Antz and a total refreshment from the too clever, too slick, too wordy and too celebrity voice packed commercial endeavors that we’ve sadly become all too accustomed to accepting from the company. Kung Fu Panda retains some of these elements, but is also a push in a delightful new direction. $35 is a tad pricey for what is essentially a basic two-disc set with the kinds of features that should be standard: commentary, featurettes and a new short among other things.

As such, it feels a little light for such a price tag, but there’s no denying there’s a lot of value on show. For those that can make do without the Furious Five backstory, a single disc packs in everything from the first platter here and may be a more cost-wary, still supplement-packed option. Blu-ray owners should rightfully feel miffed at missing out, but shouldn’t feel too miffed at not missing out on much. But whatever configuration one may jump for, in the long run this is DreamWorks’ strongest and most broadly entertaining picture in years: made with love and affection for the sources it gently mocks and pays tribute to, it never pandas to the lowest common denominator or settles for cheap shots. Kung Fu Panda certainly deserves full consideration in joining 2008’s crop of exceptional animated features on your shelves!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

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