Kung Fu Panda

Director    Mark Osborne, John Stevenson
Starring    Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen
Release    6 JUN (US) 4 JUL (UK)    Certificate PG
4 stars


6th July 2008

Dreamworks have always played second fiddle to the almighty Pixar, churning out mostly second-rate films when compared to the Nemos and Ratatouilles of the world. Kung Fu Panda, though, may just make Andrew Stanton and friends worry that they have some serious competition. It goes without saying that the visuals are astounding - just like all other Dreamworks and Pixar films of recent years - after all, if the animation wasn't up to scratch, there would be some serious answering for. But Kung Fu Panda excels in capturing the essence of ancient China; from leaves falling from a peach tree to the steam rising from Po's noodles, it's one of the better looking toons of late. When combined with Hans Zimmer's stunning score, it immerses you in beautiful Chinese culture without ever patronising it.

Meet Po, a Kung Fu-obsessed panda who dreams of fighting alongside legendary warriors Tigress, Crane, Viper, Monkey and Mantis aka the Furious Five. Alas, Po spends his days scratching his arse and working in his father's noodle bar (oh, and his father's a goose - best not to ask). However, life quickly changes for Po when he's accidentally chosen by the tortoise sensei Oogway to become the much-fated Dragon Warrior, ahead of his idols. Senile old Oogway opts for the 'there are no accidents' excuse and has total faith in his so-called chosen one, so it's left to the sceptical Master Shifu (Hoffman) to channel Mr Miyagi and train the lumbering Po for battle against a former student: the vengeful snow leopard Tai Lung (McShane), who's just escaped from prison and is looking for revenge.

Story-wise, Kung Fu Panda is merely so-so, but it's the fight scenes that really make it stand head and shoulders above the competition, maybe even knocking Shrek off his animated pedestal in the process. Tai Lung's escape from his mountain prison is a feast for the eyes: vertigo sufferers beware. As he runs effortlessly up falling rocks and fights his way to freedom, you almost forget you're watching an animated comedy aimed at children, rather a big-budget action flick. Every punch-up is better than the last. Watching the amount of effort the animators put into a scene involving Po and Shifu fighting over the last dumpling makes you really appreciate the beauty of CGI; it's a scene that just couldn't be achieved with live action. Obviously a film about a fighting Panda learning the ancient arts of Kung Fu would never be made as a live action film - those PETA swines would be all over it - but you know what I mean.

Jack Black is a fine choice to voice the movie's out-of-shape hero - it's practically his character from School Of Rock covered in hair. He's backed up by a truly overwhelming cast of big names, but the A-list support is sadly never used to its fullest and is left undeveloped throughout; the star-studded cast, including Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu and David Cross, are simply weighty names to slap on the poster and sell some tickets (this has to be the easiest pay cheque Jackie Chan will ever pick up). However, you will get a kick out of seeing a Praying Mantis converse in Seth Rogen's bass-heavy drawl - somebody give this insect his own movie.

All in all, Kung Fu Panda could be the saving grace of Dreamworks Animation, giving them a leg-up to compete in the same league as Pixar instead of watching glumly from animation's second division. With its stellar voice cast - albeit an underused one - awesome CG and some fantastically choreographed action sequences (featuring the best use of slo-mo in years), Kung Fu Panda has plenty to recommend to both kids and Kung Fu aficionados. Sure, it may not be able to go toe-to-toe with the likes of WALL·E, but at least now Dreamworks are putting up a fight. Rob

More:  Animation  Action  Family
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