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 in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen on DVD by Paramount Home Entertainment. While the presentation didn't have the kind of razor sharp appearance of the Blu-Ray, the film still remained pleasantly crisp and smooth on this enjoyable transfer. No edge enhancement was seen, but a couple of slight traces of pixelation were noted. No print flaws were seen, and the film's vibrant, lively color palette looked beautiful, appearing bold and well-saturated.
SOUND: "Kung Fu Panda" is presented in Dolby Digital 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. While the Dolby Digital presentation didn't quite match the warmth and precise clarity of the Blu-Ray's Dolby TrueHD 5.1 presentation, the Dolby Digital presentation was still more than adequate.
EXTRAS: A 2-DVD Special Edition is also available, which includes the "Secrets of the Furious Five" animated short/sequel and additional supplements.
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.)
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.) "How to Use Chopsticks" is a brief instructional piece.
"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 trailers for next year's "Monsters Vs. Aliens" and this month's "Madagascar 2", as well as a music video by Cee-Lo.
The second disc in this set offers "Secrets of the Furious Five", a 24-minute new animated short featuring Po (Jack Black), who faces a new challenge after the events of the original film. This time around, Po finds out that each generation is responsible for teaching the next generation, and a group of kids are now Po's students. Po teaches them via tales about the furious five characters from the "Kung Fu Panda" feature. While Black and Hoffman return to voice their characters, others have not. This was a brief, but cute additional film that will offer kids a further look at the characters.
The second disc also offers further bonus features, including: "Learn to Draw", "Dumpling Shuffle" and "Pandamonium Activity Kit". In the "Land of the Panda" section, we get "Learn the Panda Dance", "Do You Know Kung Fu?", "Inside the Chinese Zodiac", "Animals of Kung Fu Panda" and "What Fighting Style Are You?".
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 DVD offers very good audio/video quality, as well as a very nice set of extras. Recommended, although fans should consider the A 2-DVD Special Edition (which includes the "Secrets of the Furious Five" animated short/sequel and additional supplements) for a few dollars more.
The Film B-