Mark Osborne & John Stevenson | 92 mins | Blu-ray | PG / PG
I nearly watched Kung Fu Panda on a plane once, but planes are rubbish places to watch films so I decided against it. (I watched Superhero Movie instead, just to make it worse.) This story has no bearing on my thoughts on the film, other than to remind me how damn long it takes me to get round to watching things sometimes (look at the date on that Superhero Movie review).
Kung Fu Panda is a much better viewing choice than Superhero Movie. That’s faint praise — most things are a better choice than Superhero Movie — so let’s try again. Kung Fu Panda is a fun film, one of the best computer-animated efforts to come from a non-Pixar studio. It’s suitably amusing with endearing characters, including the titular panda, Po, voiced by Jack Black in non-irritating mode (mostly).
Black mostly carries the film. There’s nothing wrong with the supporting cast but, with the exception of a Dustin Hoffman-voiced wise old master — the only stand-out from a roster of famous names in smaller roles — most have little to do as individuals. Black does a skillful job as the lead, only sounding exactly like himself occasionally, which 95% of the time makes Po a character distinct from the ‘Jack Black’ character he plays in everything else. The remaining 5% do make him the most easily-recognised voice cast member, but then he has so many more scenes to contend with.
Panda features some beautiful animation — not a phrase you usually associate with CG ‘toons (though Pixar are pushing into this area with the likes of Ratatouille), but Panda frequently achieves it: petals swirl in the breeze, panoramic scenery shots look gorgeous, and the character animation is subtly detailed, from rippling fur to realistically low-key eye movements.
Then there’s the action sequences, a thrilling tour de force of the powers of computer animation. There are a few paced well throughout the film, and all are fast, epic, exciting, different; they make full use of the freedom afforded by animation — in particular, 3D CG animation — in both the actual fighting and the camera angles & moves used to cover it. It’s a different kind of beauty to the swirling petals and panoramic scenery, but it’s a beauty nonetheless.
In spite of a daft title/premise and the usual drawback of it Not Being Pixar, Kung Fu Panda shows that other US studios can still make worthwhile animated films. And I’m quite glad I didn’t watch it on that plane, actually, because it deserves a nice big screen.