This film’s been out for a while now, but I thought it was worth a quick review… if nothing else, it gave me an excuse to put this picture up, which is actually a pretty good summation of the general tone of the film.
Anyway, the basic story is that Po, a rather rotund Panda living in a valley with many other anthropomorphic animals (well, this is a Dreamworks animated feature), ends up being nominated as the ‘Dragon Warrior’ who will defend the valley and its citizens against the vicious snow leopard Tai Lung. Po, of course, is wildly unsuitable to be the Dragon Warrior, having more enthusiasm for Kung Fu than actual knowledge or ability. The previous five candidates to become Dragon Warrior (Monkey, Tigress, Crane, Viper and Mantis) are also sceptical of Po’s credentials, and are open in saying as much to their Kung Fu master, Shifu. Shifu’s position is further complicated by the fact that Tai Lung was his student some years ago, and developed his fighting skills under Shifu.
Upon the news that Tai Lung has escaped from prison, the five would-be Dragon Warriors (and Po) set about preparing to defend the valley, and essentially the film is about them finding a way to do this. I’m simplifying a lot here, but I’m keen to avoid any spoilers, as I really would urge you to see this film and enjoy the story for yourself, because it’s a lot better than you’d probably imagine or expect – I’ll cheerfully admit that I had my reservations about it going in.
My main reason for feeling hmm about Kung-Fu Panda was – aside from the fact that it’s yet another CGI film featuring animals – the fact that Po is voiced by Jack Black. I really liked his turn in the film version of High Fidelity, but since then it’s felt as if he’s been playing the same character, and it’s not necessarily a role I want to see over and over again. So, I was wary, but he seems to be well-cast here, and the setting of the story seems to rein in any possible tendency towards overdoing it.
The playing of Po is pretty decent then, and Dustin Hoffman is really good as Shifu, his master, but the stand-out voice performance in the film has to be that of Tai Lung – the villain of the piece – who, I was amazed to find out, is played by Ian McShane. I know, I know, he’ll always be Lovejoy to most of the people in the UK, but he snarls and menaces his way through the film like Terence Stamp as General Zod, in a really well-judged performance.
The animation in the film is top-notch too – opening with a great sequence which looks like old-style Chinese paintings brought to life, and featuring some glorious scenery, it’s almost a perfect example of how to do CGI. The fight scenes are really busy and action-packed, but you always know what’s going on, and the sequence in which Tai Lung escapes from prison is visually very exciting.
The story’s not overly demanding, but it’s well-paced, with some nice little character bits, and a lot of laughs (many of them slapstick). Perhaps the most telling remark I could make on this would be to point out that in the cinema where we saw the film, there were quite a few children in the audience, and whilst some of them were talking a bit in the first few minutes, they were sufficiently drawn in by the film that they were quiet for the rest of its running time. That, in itself, might be recommendation enough for those of you who have children.
Overall, then, I’d recommend this film – my expectations were only moderate, but I enjoyed it a lot, laughed out loud several times, and thought it looked great (especially on an IMAX screen, where the often beautiful vistas completely fill your field of view). If you can, I’d recommend seeing it on the big screen. It’s rated ‘PG for Mild Martial Arts Action’, but as the BBFC rating decision says, the film’s generally light tone means that there’s not much to scare in it, and so it strikes me as a pretty perfect film for a family outing. Definitely worth leaving home for.