Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The View from the Tank: Kung Fu Panda (2008)

I am not embarrassed to admit that I loved this movie.

I didn't really want to see this. Mrs. Octopus wanted to see it, so I went with her.

The movie knocked me out right out of the gate with its strikingly original, funny, and visually spectacular opening dream sequence. This opening is hand drawn in a woodblock-type style that's vaguely 60's retro. The sequence immediately signals that the movie, though committed to the standard children's animation formula of the outsider that needs to believe in himself, will be a treat for anyone with a fond memory of the kung fu classics that played on independent stations like Channel 5 out of New York City on the weekends back in the 80's and 70's (i.e., people born before the advent of MTV). The Fabulous Furious Five Kung Fu masters that the main character, Po (Jack Black, in a wonderful, measured performance) idolizes are embodiments of the classic styles of (movie) kung fu: tiger (Angelina Jolie), mantis (Seth Rogen), snake (Lucy Liu), crane (David Cross), and monkey (Jackie Chan). It's details like this, and the perfect music, choreography of the kung fu, and even the kung fu shouts and facial expressions on the characters, that make clear that this film is a labor of love from some serious kung fu aficionados.

After the fantastic start, I was totally on board. The story that followed was predictable, sure, but I simply did not care. I was too busy being totally blown away by truly amazing, incredibly beautiful scenes that the filmmakers casually weaved into the film: the elderly kung fu master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) slowly performing tai chi on a cliff under a peach tree with a night sky teeming with stars behind him, petals slowly and intermittenly fluttering down from the tree, the bad guy, Tai Lung (Ian McShane (Swearengen from Deadwood)), leapfrogging up through the air, from stone to falling stone, and an instant classic, and in the scene that best captures the spirit of the film, Po sparring with his master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman doing some actual acting here, in a moving, yes, I said it, moving performance) with chopsticks over one last dumpling.

The movie also impressed me with its ability to balance its mostly antic charms with a respect for the traditions of kung fu films, and, somehow, China. The film could have easily toppled into cheap jokes about Chinese culture, but it didn't. I don't know how to explain it, exactly, but I felt like people who saw this film in China would come away with a greater appreciation for the ability of Americans to appreciate and celebrate the grand tradition of Chinese kung fu -- and that they would like us better for it. This was dumb, I know, but I did sort of feel like this movie would be a good thing for U.S.-China relations as we Americans start to get used to not being the only 800-pound gorilla around. This film is like an extended, beautiful love letter to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and all the other heroes of those kung fu classics from back in the day, and I do think it'll be much appreciated back in the home of kung fu.

And though exceedingly simple, the story managed to move me. To my great disbelief, I found myself tearing up at certain points, especially as Master Oogway urged his former student, Master Shifu, to abandon his cynicism and believe in his own ability to teach Po to become the Dragon Warrior, and as Shifu confronts his former pupil, Tai Lung, who turned away from him and lost his way. I realized that this was ridiculous as it was happening -- but it happened. What can I say?

In any event, I don't want to get too carried away in my raving and blow what little credibility I have left after my enthusiastic review of Crystal Skull: taking a step back, I will concede that this was a basically formulaic summer movie aimed at kids that just happened to have a bunch of fabulous scenes, wonderful animation, and a decent story. It could have done much much more with the Fabulous Furious Five. And the final fight scene is just okay. The movie's not quite a classic, but it's achingly close. It's definitely the best movie I've seen so far this year (beating out Ironman), and I would see it again.

4 tentacles (out of 5).

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Its Furious Five !!
(although they were fabulous ; )
* - *

Octopus Grigori said...

Oh, right. Thanks, dude.

Dylan said...

I agree with everything you have written, especially the love letter to China, except I DO think this film is a classic, in as much that a cgi animated film is allowed to be called a classic.
Also agree that there could be more on the furious five (not as a criticism, more of a 'I want more'), here's hoping for a sequel... ? A furious five, road trip adventure across China would be AWESOME !!!

chanchow said...

where is the praying mantis in this picture?

Octopus Grigori said...

Not sure. Also note that the tigress and the crane are also not in this picture. This pic seems to be one of the main ones circulating with the reviews of the film.