directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Disclaimer: The following review will not concern itself with the Kung Fu Panda that everyone knows and, well, maybe “loves” would be a strong word here, but rather the version of this film that I saw when I was in Vegas for the 2008 ShoWest convention. It may be a bit alienating, and for that, I apologize.
When I sat down for the Kung Fu Panda screening at ShoWest, Paramount stated that, as of right then, Dreamworks had not finished the final touches on its latest animated endeavor, which included scoring the film and animating a few action sequences. They assured everyone that the film would be finished on time, but they wanted to give us a taste of what was to come that summer. The story itself is traditional but enjoyable: an unlikely character (a tubby Panda, voiced by Jack Black) trains amongst his heroes to become a great and powerful warrior. The voice work is solid but silly, with Ian McShane standing out best of all as the voice of the snow leopard, Tai Lung. But the film was a very different animal when I glimpsed it that winter. Instead of an original score, the filmmakers cut in musical segments from Batman Begins and the Kill Bill films, which made the film amazing in ways I didn’t think were possible at the time. Certain sequences (in exactly the right proportions and at exactly the right moments in the film) were nothing more than animatic abstractions (the story of the Five, near the beginning, for instance) that create a feeling of artistic breadth and depth. When coupled with the stand-in score, the varied animation taps into a filmic history that enriches the movie in glorious ways. The film itself pays homage to many of the great martial arts films that came before it (Akira Kurosawa, The Shaw Brothers, Kenji Misumi), and it blends credible action with visceral fantasy that stays light (though I wished it would have just gone for it) and family friendly. The ShoWest version was incomplete in all the right ways, and the stop gaps meant merely to keep the ball rolling instead added depth, artistry and innovation to an otherwise pleasant but vanilla family film (though it does have wonderful moments that fans of martial arts films will appreciate). That version doesn’t exist anywhere but in my mind and the minds of the lukewarm audience that received it. I actually inquired about obtaining a copy of the film in that magnificent state, imploring Dreamworks to let me have it. I told them I would wait until the film was released on DVD, even, that I was moved by the prototype unfurled in Las Vegas, but to no avail. It’s a shame, but the version I watched at ShoWest is a testament to what some would consider peripheral filmic components used in a manner that can give way to art. It’s the little differences that can make all the difference.
Note: I do not have faith the upcoming sequel. It just looks silly. And that's not say that I don't enjoy silly (just look at my past reviews, I love it all), but this one just looks a bit too silly and a bit too lifeless for my taste.