Knocked out by cliches
THE latest animation blockbuster from DreamWorks, the company that gave us Shrek, is Kung Fu Panda, about a plump panda who wants to be a kung- fu superstar and who, naturally, succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. Po, voiced by Jack Black, follows a long line of underdog heroes in Hollywood family films who can make their dreams come true as long as they believe in themselves. The message here seems to be directed at obese children: they too can be special, can realise their ambitions and overcome obstacles. They only have to believe to make it true.
For those who may have trouble accepting this wholesomeness without cynicism, the good news is that the corny — and disputable — philosophy is, in the case of Kung Fu Panda , sugar- coated with astonishingly beautiful visuals and a generous sense of humour. It may be formulaic, but it seems certain to entertain children of all ages, and many parents and grandparents as well.
The visual design has been influenced by classical Chinese painting and is gorgeous to behold. Distant mountains, temples and trees covered with blossoms provide a rich backdrop to the exceedingly simple narrative.
Po lives and works with his father, Mr Ping ( voiced by James Hong), and nothing whatsoever is made of the fact that a panda is the son of a rather scrawny goose. Adults in the audience may spend some time speculating how this miracle of nature came about.
Mr Ping runs a noodle shop and he just wants his son to stop dreaming of martial arts glory and enter wholeheartedly into the running of the establishment. His soup, which contains a secret special ingredient, is famous throughout the region and though he once dreamed of making tofu, he’s now resigned to doing what he does best, and just wishes his son would do the same.
Po is obsessed, however, and when he learns that Master Oogway ( Randall Duk Kim), the turtle who presides over this part of the kingdom, is about to select a new Dragon Warrior, he’s eager to apply. The frontrunners for the position are the Furious Five, a quintet of martial arts experts who are Po’s heroes: Tigress ( Angelina Jolie), Monkey ( Jackie Chan), Viper ( Lucy Liu), Crane ( David Cross) and Mantis ( Seth Rogen). In the end they are all bypassed for Po who, after some farcical failures, has managed to enter the grounds of the palace and apply for the position.
Oogway’s decision is incomprehensible to Master Shifu ( Dustin Hoffman), the teacher responsible for training the clumsy panda in the mysteries of kung- fu. Shifu, who belongs to the wolf family and bears a marked resemblance to Obi- Wan Kenobi, is, as voiced by Hoffman, the most amusing character in the film, partly because few of the others get many chances to establish their characters.
The exception is the villain, the horrendous Tai Lung ( Ian McShane), who bears a grudge against Oogway: he escapes from a high- security prison and threatens the kingdom. Can Po save the day?
There’s plenty of animated action of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon variety and Black fans will relish the actor’s ebullient voicing of the determined hero. More original plotting could have bolstered this visually magnificent production. But Kung Fu Panda ticks all the boxes of popular family entertainment.
* * * SPEED Racer also falls under the heading of family entertainment, but adults will have to be a lot more tolerant to endure it. Based on a 1960s Japanese animated series, the film is extremely simplistic: Speed Racer ( Emile Hirsch) only ever wanted to drive a racing car like his big brother, Rex, who apparently died in an accident. He resists the offer of a shady Brit ( Roger Allam) to join his team but nevertheless goes on to success, egged on by his parents ( John Goodman, Susan Sarandon), his cheeky little brother ( Paulie Litt), a cute chimpanzee and his nice girlfriend ( Christina Ricci). Nothing very original there.
Instead of finding something new in these characters, Larry and Andy Wachowski, who wrote and directed this mind- numbing, two- hour marathon ( their first film since the Matrix trilogy) have pulled out every stop in the visual department. This is as close to a cartoon as it’s possible to get without being a cartoon; the highdefinition images are garish and impossibly bright, and the flashy editing moves the giant characters laterally across the screen.
Unfortunately, the cartoonish nature of the car races seriously diminishes the drama. Since these sleek vehicles crash regularly without, seemingly, any ill effects, there’s no element of suspense. Everything, including most of the acting, is played at a heightened pitch, which becomes wearying after a while, especially in a film so long. The actors, many of them notable for better things in the past — Hirsch was remarkable in his previous film, Into the Wild — struggle to find the right tone.
There are undoubtedly entertaining elements to be found in this brassy, noisy, essentially empty film, but they’re undermined by the same sort of cliches that mar Kung Fu Panda. It’s no accident that the squeaky clean hero drinks milk and drives a white car. It’s in such obvious ways that the filmmakers delineate their characters: clean- living hero ( good); corporate wheelerdealer ( bad).
Somewhere in the middle of all this the Australian actor Kick Gurry does his best to make an impression as Sparky, the hero’s comic sidekick. But like everyone else in the cast, he’s defeated by the Wachowski brothers’ lack of interest in flesh- and- blood human beings.
Grin and bear it: Po ( Jack Black) gets a lesson from Master Shifu ( Dustin Hoffman)