The latest from Dreamworks animation is "Kung Fu Panda", an effort from co-directors Mark Osbourne and John Stevenson (the former having previously directed "Spongebob Squarepants" and the latter having directed episodes of the amusing - if quickly canceled - "Father of the Pride".) "Panda" opens with Po the Panda (voice of Jack Black) dreaming of a life of Kung Fu while working - not well - away at his father's noodle restaurant.
Meanwhile, head monk Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) believes that the evil Tia Lung (Ian McShane) will break free and come back to cause havoc in their peaceful valley in China. Oogway decides that it is the right time to choose a Dragon warrior that will protect the area from the wrath of Lung. While a number of very able candidates - Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), and Mantis (Seth Rogen) - are ready and waiting, Po accidentally finds himself appointed the chosen one.
Shifu and the others are deeply upset at the choice, given that the hefty Po doesn't exactly seem like the most sleek and fast (after climbing up the stairs for a battle late in the movie, he has to stop for a moment to catch his breath, managing only to say, "stairs...") choice for a warrior that will be going up against Lung. However, given that the decision seems final, the bunch accept that Po's fate is to be a warrior and set about training him for the potential battle ahead.
I suppose my main concern with the picture is that it feels overly familiar. Unlikely warrior has to step up to battle fierce enemy and goes through different training exercises before eventually finding the warrior within. The movie's animation is very good (it's certainly not Pixar, but it has its own rather bold look) and the voice acting is solid, but the script never rises above the ordinary - the jokes are mostly okay and the plot is predictable.
Kids are probably going to enjoy "Kung Fu Panda" just fine, but while I enjoyed the look of the picture and the voice work, the story itself just didn't bring anything new to the "underdog"/"believe in yourself" tale.
VIDEO: "Kung Fu Panda" is presented by Dreamworks Animation Home Entertainment in 2.35:1 (1080p/AVC) (this is the first of the Dreamworks Animation films to be in 2.35:1.) The results are, as one might expect from a major CGI animated film such as this one, absolutely fantastic. Sharpness and detail are exceptional, as even the slightest details - fur, settings, etc are smooth and sharp.
The only concern of note was a few slight touches of noise in a couple of scenes. No print flaws were seen (obviously, considering that this was almost certainly a direct-from-digital transfer), nor were any instances of edge enhancement. Colors looked beautiful, appearing bold and well-saturated throughout the show. This was a delightful presentation to watch, appearing nearly flawless.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. While the film is certainly not wall-to-wall action, the film's surprisingly (well, for a family film) active sound design seemed to take advantage of any opportunity to try and put the surrounds to use. Action often spilled out into the rear speakers, which frequently delivered various sound effects and ambiance, as well as some reinforcement of the score. Audio quality is excellent, as effects sounded precise and well-recorded, while dialogue sounded warm and clear. Overall, the audio presentation remained highly entertaining throughout, and exceeded expectations.
EXTRAS: directors Mark Osbourne and John Stevenson offer an audio commentary for the film. The two directors do - at least at times during the picture - do start falling back into narrating the events going on in the film, but when they get back to providing production tidbits, the two do provide an informative discussion. The two talk about a number of different aspects, from story (including some aspects that were changed or deleted), working with the cast and inspirations (both in regards to the look of the film and other elements of the production.) There is also a picture-in-picture feature offering interviews and storyboards ("The Animator's Corner"), as well.
In terms of the featurettes, we get the traditional "Meet the Cast" (13 minutes), which is a promo piece that spends much of its time visiting with the cast in the recording studio as they record their parts and discuss their characters. While Black offers up a few funny one-liners, this is otherwise a pretty fluffy extra. "Pushing the Boundaries" (7 minutes) is a look at the film's CGI animation. "Conservation Academy" is a brief featurette with Black talking about saving the Pandas.
"Sound Design" is a piece that looks into the film's sound work, with comments from the filmmakers and sound designer Ethan Van der Ryn ("Transformers", "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.) "What Fighting Style Are You?", "How to Use Chopsticks", "Do You Know Kung Fu?" and "Learn the Panda Dance" are brief instructional or quiz pieces targeted towards younger viewers.
"Mr. Ping's Noodle House" is a short feature on making noodles and proper technique to eat noodles with Food Network host Alton Brown. We also get a pair of games ("Dumpling Shuffle" and "Dragon Warrior Training Academy"), a music video by Cee-Lo and "Inside the Chinese Zodiac" and "Animals of Kung Fu Panda" featurettes. The featurettes are presented in HD.
We also get trailers for next year's "Monsters Vs. Aliens" and this month's "Madagascar 2", as well as BD-Live features (which require a BD-Live enabled player.)
Final Thoughts: "Kung Fu Panda" is a lightly amusing animated feature; while I appreciated its visuals and voice work, I thought the story felt formulaic. Kids will likely find it more enjoyable - and it does try to play towards a younger target audience, unlike some recent animated features that try to play to both - than adults. The Blu-Ray offers outstanding video quality, very good audio quality and a wide variety of extras.
The Film B-