If I am ever to be a father (and the following should illustrate why I say God forbid – I’d be a very awful parent), there’s an epic legend I will tell my cinephiliac children about the legend of an animation studio once heralded by a bitter man. A man so bitter that he used any possible avenue of success to go ahead and spit spite at his old bosses instead of moving in a new direction, flinging shit at the hand that fed him. “The same bosses’ whose canonical work you have been indoctrinating us with, master?” one of my accidental offspring would inquire, knowing to refer to me by my proper title towards them. “Indeed,” I’d respond tersely and without any potential window for nonexistent tenderness. Not only would said movie studio base their most popular franchise on basically bitching about their founder’s old job, but every picture of theirs would be an unashamed attempt at marketing at the same subject matter their rival was releasing at the time. All with poor storytelling and just under-the-edge animation work, including very off-putting character design. *shudders* (inwardly, not outwardly… any sign of weakness towards my tykes would give them sign of possibility of overthrowing their Shogun).
But, the legend would turn around. After a while perhaps the animation studio would decide that hate is absolute baggage and suddenly change their contemptuous game into a film not really that extraordinary and yet that film would be the very first to be enjoyable on its own merits and be compulsively rewatchable by yours truly on the merits of its low-stakes yet clearly defined arc and its amiably visual characters and its humor.
“What did the studio do?” that one indistinguishable child whose name I totally forgot would ask (narrow the possible names down, Salim, is it a boy or a girl? I can’t tell).
They decided that making a star vehicle was a little less shallow than making a company hate-letter. And it probably is a much better thing that I have a lot more attachment to Jack Black than, say, if it were a star vehicle for James Franco.
The funny thing is that that particular vehicle for Jack Black, 2008’s Kung Fu Panda, begins with a much less esoteric and more wonderful opening sequence. Indeed, it is my favorite sequence in the entire movie as we hear Black’s voice recite with no less than 100% gusto of a fantasy scenario for his lead character illustrated in a style of faux 2-D somewhere between the flatness of depth of South Park and the angular movement based in Japanese anime. It’s through this that our panda narrator Po (Black) informs us of the kung-fu legends Furious Five (a poor choice in team name as it makes me think about either Grandmaster Flash or the Fast and the Furious series depending on how my day goes) – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Monkey (Jackie Chan).
Po is obviously an enthusiastic fan of kung fu and so when news goes about of the grandmasters Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a stern and irritable red panda, and the relaxed tortoise Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) are selecting the legendary Dragon Warrior out of their ranks, Po struggles to witness the festivities and ends up being selected accidentally, to the chagrin of Shifu and the Five. Because what Po and everybody except Shifu and Oogway do not know is that their original snow leopard pupil Tai Lung (Ian McShane) is out to escape from his prison for revenge against his master for what he feels was abandonment.
Anyway, I mentioned how the opening sequence is of course the height of the film for me based on its stylized animation and Black’s voice performance, but that’s not at all to say that there’s a severe gap in quality between that and the film proper. What we have here is a truly quick bit of kids’ picture fun with a design to its CGI animation that is actually pretty gorgeous, even if its not anywhere near Pixar’s work. The day backgrounds are full of light colors that bring up the frivolity of this semi-disposable film, while the dark blues of night have the whole coolness of their moments amped (since these are the moments most poignant to characters – Shifu taking Oogway’s counsel, Po confronting Shifu’s antagonism towards him, etc.) while the shapes of the scenery give it a sophistication that compliments their beauty.
But of course most of all to me is very wonderful the character designs are. There’s a bit of laziness in how similar Tigress and Tai Lung look but there’s a fierceness to the shape of their skulls that already tells us of how serious they are as the “best” warriors, Oogway as a turtle has an aged looseness to him that makes him lovable as a character despite getting some pretty senile lines, but most obviously is Po because well… they just knew how to make an animated feature still work visually as a Jack Black vehicle. Po’s shape and size makes us think of Black, it’s not a stretch to consider him a panda, and not only does it allow us to associate his recognizable voice to the visual representation (which is kind of tough for most of the other voice performances save for Jolie and McShane, though they also kind of play their stock types as well: ferocious female fighter and dastardly villain, respectively), it allows for some very tasteful slapstick. Not necessarily unforgettable slapstick, we’re not talking Marx brothers work here, but slapstick that is pretty good considering the sort of unsophisticated slapstick they feed children these days.
This is not the best work of Dreamworks Animation’s day for it would be truly unextraordinary in the end (or even the best Jack Black film, given School of Rock‘s existence and this movie’s sequel). We still have quite an average yet well-worth watching picture here, no storytelling at the level of the finest fables nor animation of immense detail, but all of it is still enjoyable. What I can say is that it is the first good work Dreamworks Animation put out from their CGI lot, the first time I actually left one of their works with a big grin on my face in faith of their potential, and that’s really quite a worthwhile milestone in itself, doncha think?