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Kung-Fu Panda (2008): ***

Directed by Mark Osborne & John Stevenson

Because so many Dreamworks animated movies that are lead by all-star casts turn out to be horribly, horribly awful, I was fully expecting Kung-Fu Panda not to be a very good movie. I like Jack Black, and I thought he'd probably be funny, but the rest of the movie would be an awful, ugly, schticky mess. I was therefore surprised that I actually liked the movie. It's an enjoyably light, pleasantly fun, and surprisingly pretty romp.

First of all, most other Dreamworks CGI movie that I've seen (or seen pictures or footage from) are visually horrific. Dreamworks has an uncanny ability to design things that I do not want to look at. Over the Hedge looked okay; the Madagascar films don't look too bad. But the rest look like the crap. So I was tremendously releived that Kung-Fu Panda actually had appealing character designs, and looked--GASP--like its shots had actually been carefully composed and color-keyed instead of just generated haphazardly in a computer. The film opens with an absolutely spectacular 2D-animated sequence that, unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn't quite live up to. But it doesn't do bad. The backgrounds were pretty. The characters were expressive and dynamic and didn't look like ugly lumps of mud put randomly together. Only took Dreamworks ten years to get there. Whew!

The action sequences are very well done, and it seemed like they really took some modicum of care with the martial arts. The characters all have (relatively) realistic physics and seem to have mass and weight that informs their movements. The camera angles are good, the action is always crystal-clear with appropriate usage of slow motion when necessary and dramatic. They also all take place in different environments with different moods (dark, wet cave; foggy rope bridge; sunny hilltop, etc.).

The story is a straight-forward fable about pride and jealousy. It's one of those screenplays, though, that is so incredibly tight that there is very little room for discovery or fun character moments... unless those character moments are somehow going to be re-incorporated later on. It seemed as though EVERYTHING in the movie was a "Chekov's Gun." Almost every single moment served the story. Because of that, it seemed that a lot of potentially interesting character interactions simply didn't happen. Jackie Chan voiced Monkey, and had a grand total of about three lines in the whole film because if he'd said anything else then they would have had to wrack their brains to figure out how to re-incorporate it in such a way that it was absolutely essential to the story. Ditto with Lucy Liu as Viper. David Cross and Seth Rogan actually have a fair amount of lines, though they were very bizarre casting choices as Crane and Mantis respectively. But their dialogue only serves as exposition for important backstory.

Don't get me wrong; the story was pretty good. I also found the characters to be inherently likable and sympathetic, especially the central dynamic of the movie between Jack Black as Po (the panda), Angelina Jolie as Tigress, and Dustin Hoffman who is excellent as Shifu, the red panda. They did a good job of presenting everything in such a way that it didn't seem like they were just counting off a list of story requirements. But the movie felt a little constricted by the tightness of the screenplay. I would have liked there to have been a little bit more play or character interactions. It left the movie with a certain lack of depth. But I did enjoy it as light, breezy entertainment.

So let's say you're trying to decide if you want to see Kung-Fu Panda. Here's a question: Do you like Jack Black? Do you think he's funny? If so, then you'll probably think that Po is also funny. I think Jack Black is funny. Kung-Fu Panda is essentially a Jack Black movie. So I thought it was pretty funny. If you don't like Jack Black, then why would you go see a movie starring him?

P.S. Kung-Fu Panda recently swept the Annie awards, winning every single award for which it was nominated, including Best Animated Feature over EVERY other animated feature released in 2008. When I heard that, my instant reaction was, "Really? I mean, it was pretty good and I enjoyed watching it, but... really?"

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