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KUNG FU PANDA
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Jackie Chan, Ian McShane
Directors:  Mark Osborne, John Stevenson
Audio:  Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  See Review
Length:  88 Minutes
Release Date:  November 9, 2008

“You…you’re just a big fat panda!”

“I’m not a big fat panda…I’m THE big fat panda!”

Film ***

Jack Black voicing an animated panda?  A quintet of animals representing the actual martial arts styles they represent?  A good old fashioned kung fu throwback picture with funny, cuddly critters enacting it all?  It sounds like my kind of film.

And Kung Fu Panda is a success.  I laughed a lot during the movie.  I laughed at the zany antics of the inimitable Jack Black in the title role, I laughed at the constant parade of gags, but mostly, I laughed because I ‘got’ the joke.  Any fan of the 70s martial arts films from Hong Kong is liable to get it.

Yes, Kung Fu Panda follows the formula, but updates it with modern technologies and a family fun sensibility.  It’s particularly mindful of the early Jackie Chan films, so it’s appropriate that he voices the monkey. 

But the crux of the story is Po (Black), a loveably chubby panda who dreams of kung fu glory while working in his father’s noodle shop in China.  He knows all about the famed Furious Five:  Monkey (Chan), Mantis (Rogen), Snake (Liu), Tiger (Jolie) and Crane (Cross), and their legendary exploits, led by their master Shifu (Hoffman).  But trouble is afoot in China…namely, the feared return of an evil and powerful warrior named Tai Lung (McShane)…once a pupil of Shifu, his path turned dark when he was denied access to the Dragon Scroll, which contains the secrets of all the kung fu powers in the universe.

The only one who can stop Tai Lung is the famed Dragon Warrior, and, perhaps owing to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it seems our friend Po has been selected.  Trouble is, despite his dreams, he knows less kung fu than…well, me, I suppose.  And the Furious Five are more than a little outraged that one of their own wasn’t selected for the honor of learning the secret of the Dragon Scroll.

Now, poor Po is up for the challenge of his life, training hard under the merciless tutelage of Shifu and the Five.  This is why I say kung fu film fans will get the joke:  the old tried and true story of the warrior-to-be going through rigorous training, learning some new secret, and doing battle with a superior enemy.  We’ve just never seen it in the animal kingdom before.  All actors are wonderful, but the hiring of Mr. Black was a particularly inspired choice…I hope to hear more from him in animated works in the future.

This is a fun film, with wonderful characters and beautiful art direction, all brought together to update an Asian classic story formula with comedy, action and a good heartfelt message about believing in yourself and not being afraid to chase down your dreams. 

Video ****

My wife remarked that Kung Fu Panda might be the most beautiful computer animated film she’s seen, and I would tend to agree…you wouldn’t expect that level of artistic achievement from what is essentially a chop-saki slapstick comedy, but this movie achieves a sense of wonder with their depictions of Chinese landscapes, classic architecture, and gorgeous scenery.  The colors are vibrant and popping off the screen in high definition, and the full digital glory of the presentation looks stunning in 1080p format.  Just about all animation I’ve seen on Blu-ray has been top notch, but consider this one a notch above.

Audio ****

The TrueHD soundtrack is lively and dynamic, with lots of comedy and action keeping your surround system in full mirthful employ.  There are big scenes that really bring out the best in your multi-channel setting, but the lossless audio also gives quieter scenes a more open sense of natural ambience.  Terrifically done.

Features ****

The disc starts off with an exclusive Blu-ray feature called “The Animator’s Corner”.  It uses pop-up picture in picture presentation to take you behind the scenes of the recording sessions, extra interviews, storyboards and more.  Or you can watch with a pop-up trivia track, which is also good fun.  Then, turn on the filmmaker commentary for even more information on how the movie was put together.

There are also extras the kids will enjoy, including the Dragon Warrior Training Academy.  They can also learn about kung-fu, saving the wild pandas of China, and figure out which fighting style they are.  I was a tiger, in case anyone cares.  They can learn to draw Po, or find out about the animals of the movie, or even get a lesson on how to use chopsticks.  You can learn about the Chinese zodiac, watch a “Kung Fu Fighting” music video, join Alton Brown at Mr. Ping’s Noodle House (truly amazing, the skills of a noodle chef), or enjoy some trailers.

Summary:

Kung Fu Panda is delightful animated fun for the whole family, but if you happen to appreciate the kung fu traditions that inspired it, you might just laugh a little more.  This is an absolutely gorgeous and pristine Blu-ray offering that might just become one of your demonstration discs.

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