Traditionally, there have been two paths for animation filmmakers. One is to make the films as close to reality as possible. That is the path taken by Pixar and Sony Animation, which try to push animation technology to new extremes and squeeze out every bit of processing power and skill set they have. The other is the conventional path that tries to realize the creators’ most bizarre and outlandish fantasies and attempts to emulate the peaks attained by Disney and Miyazaki. The second path is what companies like Dreamworks Animation have adopted and, to an extent, succeeded. Their latest offering, Kung Fu Panda is a clever idea, but inefficiently harnessed.
Po (Jack Black) is a chubby panda working in a Chinese restaurant but dreams of making it big as a Kung Fu hero. He idolizes the biggest Kung Fu heroes of the village, namely, Tigress, Snake, Monkey, Mantis and Crane (Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen and David Cross respectively). He, then, hears about the induction of the Dragon Master who will be selected by Master Oogway himself. By seemingly sheer luck (or bad luck), Po gets selected as the Dragon Master who is to protect the village from the claws of Tai Lung (Ian McShane). In his mission he is assisted by Master Shifu (Hoffman, unidentifiable) who first seeks to drive out Po, but turns over a new leaf after a while.
Po is as cute as an animation character can get, but it is a pity that the creators have not utilized Jack Black fully for Po and vice versa. A bit more dedicated reconstruction could have not only guaranteed a great character, but also a huge brand value for the character which could then be merchandised well. With a enviable cast for the Furious five, it is but natural to expect some big role for them. Unfortunately, the film spends most of its time bringing out Po’s vulnerability and innocence and hence, the characters are merely reduced to a bunch of creatures you will fascinate staring at a zoo. However, Shifu’s small stature (a red panda) and Hoffman’s efforts suit the etching of his character and makes his presence worthwhile. The depiction of Tai Lung is anything but novel.
One of the minor commendable points of the film is the choice of its fauna for the images of the characters. The monochromatic Po is totally out of place in the colourful world of Valley of Peace, the slow and steady tortoise is the intellectual master of the palace, subordinated by the relatively rash, hare-like Shifu and a black and white polar creature, Tai Lung is pitted against another. However, the writers are to blame for the biggest blow for the film, the utterly stale and predictable plot that has become a favorite of critics to pan down. No sir, we did not expect this from the creators of Shrek (2001) and Madagascar (2005).
Now there must be something in the film to counterbalance the wound created by the plot and there is. The fabulously rendered world of Valley of Peace and Chinese architecture, never once pretending to be realistic, vibrant and daring use of colours and Kung Fu action that can substitute many Hong Kong flicks are definitely noteworthy. The tone of imagery, which is now fast becoming the trademark of Dreamworks, is thankfully retained and this paves way for the future flicks from Dreamworks to add girth to the plot. Finally, there is a huge opportunity for a sequel with a lot of spaces to be filled from the first one. Hmm… I guess the image of the Furious five can be reinstated there.
Unlike Madagascar, which provided visual treat for the toddlers and also retained the adults with its hilarious one-liners, Kung Fu Panda is clearly for the children and hence focuses more on slapstick and juvenile verbal humour. This, without doubt, will entice the young ones, but grown ups (cinematically, that is) beware. With Madagascar’s sequel to hit in a few weeks, it is a good time for Dreamworks to recapture the adult market it may have lost with Kung Fu Panda.