djonn: Self-portrait (Wabbit)

Let's be clear here: I don't normally succumb to talking-animal movies.  I have skipped all of the Ice Ages, ventured nowhere near Madagascar, stayed well away from Happy Feet, and ignored the entire string of insects and arachnids (ants, bugs, bees, what-have-you) that have infested theaters over the last couple of years.  [All right, so I did see Chicken Run, but if memory serves, that one had almost no standup comedians in the major roles.]

However.

The trailers for Kung Fu Panda looked surprisingly tempting.  It looked as if the writers had actually paid some attention to martial arts folklore, for one thing.  And I was picking up some cautiously optimistic buzz.  And I had Monday afternoon mostly free....

I'm not sure it's a classic, exactly.  But it is an extremely well-made, straightforward, and beautifully self-contained movie, and it may just be the first Dreamworks animated project to really capture and bottle the old-school Disney storytelling spirit. 

Two things really stand out as making the movie work.  One is the worldbuilding.  The story opens by showing us the city where Po, our title character, lives -- and that setting remains important throughout the movie.  Indeed, the film's most critical turning point comes in a scene between Po and his "father", involving no kung fu action at all.  The second is the character chemistry, most especially between Po (voiced by Jack Black) and Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), but also throughout the cast.  Hoffman in particular makes Master Shifu a fascinating and distinctive character . . . and what's more, the script gives him a character arc that is, if anything, even more powerful than our hero's.  You just do not see characterization that deep in feature animation -- but it's here, and it's persuasive.

Even more impressive, the script is smart enough to mostly underplay the morality-fable aspects of the story, while being equally careful not to make the comedy go too far over the top.  Both elements are kept to just the level needed to serve the story without dominating it, which helps keep the tone consistent throughout.  Thus we get a fantastic extended combat sequence between Po and Shifu involving the last of a bowl of dumplings -- and an equally fantastic extended combat sequence in which the legendary Furious Five animal masters go toe to toe with the utterly ruthless Tai Lung for much higher stakes.

Again, I don't know that I'd call this a classic; for all its excellent qualities, it feels more good-natured than anything else.  And yet, as I was musing about what I'd seen over the closing credits, it occurred to me where else I'd seen just this kind of chemistry and unselfconscious goodwill in an animated ensemble . . . it's the same resonance that's there in the earliest and best of the Disney Winnie-the-Pooh stories.  Stay through the end credits for the small Easter egg at the tail end, and see if you don't agree with me.

Highly recommended.

Have You Heard This?

"Changing from bad to good's as easy as...taking your first step!"

-- Kris Kringle (to the Winter Warlock)
Santa Claus is Coming to Town

June 2017

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