Knocked out by cliches

David Stratton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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)

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