I have an odd relationship with DreamWorks Animation. I love the idea of the company — a major animation competitor to Disney (and partner Pixar), with each pushing the other to be better. But unfortunately, I’ve disliked almost every DreamWorks film! Yes, their animation is very good. And yes they can attract big names (which is actually to the detriment in a lot of their films). But story-wise things just weren’t clicking for me. In the past DreamWorks has competed with Disney by making two different types of movies. There were some that were a more serious type of animated film. While these may have been pretty good in their own way they just weren’t necessarily that enjoyable. Then there were some that competed not by trying to be a better quality film, but by using a completely different style from the competition. These had a hip, modern vibe with lots of pop culture references. The stories weren’t that great but a least there was some fun to be had occasionally. This worked in the sense that they sold a lot of tickets and DVDs. But classics these films were not. In 2004, the first DWA film that I actually liked a little bit came out — Shrek 2. The story was fleshed out nicely, the jokes were good, and the pop culture stuff was not so in your face. Over the next two years Madagascar and Over The Hedge continued the trend with enjoyable, funny stories that weren’t trying to be “cool”. There were some misses as well, but DreamWorks had shown they had the pieces to deliver their first true modern classic — all they had to do was put those pieces in place. Ten years after their first animated film, they’ve finally got it done.

With every shot show a little improvement.
To show it all would take too long. That’s called a montage.

Kung Fu Panda is the story of Po, an out of shape, overweight, noodle-selling, kung fu fanatic panda. He dreams of being a great kung fu master with the respect of the world’s greatest kung fu fighters, the Furious Five. After the escape of the Five’s nemesis from prison, a Dragon Warrior must be chosen who will have the power to defeat the enemy once and for all. While the Five display their martial arts prowess for the elder who will choose the Warrior, Po fights just to get in to the arena to watch his heroes as he is late and the doors have been closed. He makes several attempts to get over the wall and eventually succeeds, but ends up face down in the center of the action — where the elder chooses him to face China’s greatest villain!

I’ve already given away that I think this is DreamWorks’ best film to date. And the reason is that they have taken all the pieces of a great animated film and successfully melded them with the things that make DreamWorks’ films unique — attitude, fun animation, and star power.

As their competitors at Pixar have known for years, story is king. Some DWA films are too serious. You can almost see the executives counting the awards they think they’ll win with such an important film. Others are too superficial. The movie is just a canvas for the characters to make jokes about current events or bodily functions. But with this bear they have got things just right. They’ve chosen an under-used subject matter to build off of (kung fu), which makes the whole thing feel fresher than some of the retreaded ideas we’ve seen before from the company. And the story is fun, but also has some real depth to it. Most of the characters are fleshed out with real motivations. But your five year old kid is going to like them anyway! That’s not to say all is perfect. Some of the sentimentalism is a bit forced. And it would have been nice to see a little more of Po’s training rather than putting it in a montage. But overall those criticisms are nit-picking compared with how much they got right. Even a deus ex machina can be forgiven!

DreamWorks has never lacked in the animation department, but in Kung Fu Panda they have really outdone themselves. Yes, we have the same furry animals that have become cliché in animation. And no there is no unique look to the critters like in Madagascar. But you won’t care. The star of the animation here is the camera. In no animated film I can recall has there been such exciting “camera work”. The action is so fast and furious and the audience is right in the middle of it. The action scenes could have been flat and boring or, worse, a muddled mess where you aren’t even sure what is going on. But thanks to the freedom animation affords — and the incredible work of some DreamWorks animators — you won’t miss a punch or a kick! Also worthy of special note are the beautiful locations and sets.

A wonderful film from DreamWorks? Don’t look so surprised.
They’ve come a long way in the past few years.

Another big improvement for DreamWorks in this film was the voice work. We all know they love to get the biggest celebrities and then put their names in huge letters on the posters and trailers. It doesn’t matter if the celebrity meshes with the character or not — they’re famous! That’s all that matters, right! Obviously wrong to animation fans. But in Kung Fu Panda things mesh perfectly. Jack Black is the perfect Po, with all the humor needed, of course, but also surprisingly with some nice emotional nuances as well. Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu and David Cross as the Furious Five, while not giving spectacular performances, at least don’t detract from their roles. Ian McShane’s voice drips with refined villainy (and a hint of emotional pain). He could be a superb voice actor if he chooses. Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu is easily one of the best performances by a major star in any DreamWorks film. His voice is just hidden enough to not be overwhelming while still being himself. And he infuses the character with gravitas and poignancy all at once.

After seeing Kung Fu Panda you can almost look back at the history of DreamWorks films and see how everything led to this point. They’ve had some duds in the past but they learned from them and took what worked and moved it forward. I can’t wait to see where they go from here. Just like this film there is only one word for it – awesomeness!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Kung Fu Panda
June 6, 2008
92 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson