7.7.08

Kung-Fu Panda(monium)!

Pandas aren't known for their dexterity and they surely aren't known for their prowess in martial arts. But Po isn't just any panda, he's the star of DreamWork's latest animation venture, aptly titled, Kung Fu Panda.

Real life panda lookalike Jack Black plays Po, the enthusiastic, big and a little clumsy martial arts obsessed panda. His obsession leads him to constant daydreams during his job as a waiter in the village noodle shop, run by his father, who happens to be a goose, Mr Ping (voiced by James Hong).

Po is a big fan of Kung Fu, but working at a noodle shop doesn't exactly allow him to practice his growing desire of becoming a Kung Fu expert. His interest is piqued when he hears that Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), the thousand-year-old turtle, will be choosing a Dragon Warrior at a prestigious ceremoney. Abandoning his day job, Po stumbles and disrupts his way into the ceremony where one of the Furious Five will be chosen as the savior from an approaching evil.

The Furious Five are the champions of Valley of Peace (the setting of the movie, modeled after the ) and under the tutelage of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), it is hoped that one of them will become the Dragon Warrior and defend the valley from the evil snow leopard warrior Tai-Lung (Ian McShane), a former pupil of Shifu, gone rogue.

The Furious Five could have been named the Famous Five – and not because they solve any mysteries – it's because they're all famous actors. From the Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen from Knocked Up and Superbad), Tigress (Angelina Jolie) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) these five characters/actors are more or less help Po along on his hero's journey, a journey that will teach him much about life and more importantly that he needs to be their own hero.

It was a theme that was very important to the directors (John Stevenson and Mark Osborne) and the producer (Melissa Cobb) of Kung Fu Panda, right from the start. "We wanted the film to have something children could take away: 'Be your own hero,' which means don’t look outside of yourself for the answer. You are empowered to achieve anything you want, if you set your mind to it," says director John Stevenson. And to shape that message they needed the right kind of writer, or writers in this case. TV writing duo Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger helped shape the world of Kung Fu Panda and brought its characters to life.

It was obvious from the very beginning that title character would be voiced by Jack Black. Black's previous outing as a shark in Shark Tale, impressed DreamWork's executive Jeffery Katzenberg . "One day, Jeffrey came to me and basically said, 'Hey, let's make another one.' I had done a character voice, more of a nebbishy, New Yorker, kind of a Woody Allen-type of voice as Lenny (from Shark Tale). So I assumed I’d be getting back into the character voice thing. But Jeffrey said, 'This time you're the big cheese, and it's called Kung Fu Panda," states Black.

Dustin Hoffman as Shifu (Po's teacher) was not such an obvious choice but it was the right choice. Hoffman found Osborne and Stevenson's direction to be quite liberating, "They promised me at the beginning that anything I didn't like I could re-do — which you can't do on a regular film. These guys have spent four years on this, and they've always said that it's constantly something you can change, you can re-animate. I allowed myself to be guided by them. Because otherwise, I would come in with some kind of predetermined idea that would be nowhere near as good as theirs."

What character is complete without his idol or in this case, five of them? The animals chosen to represent Po's idol weren't randomly picked up. In fact, Kung Fu enthusiasts will note with glee that each animal represents each of the fighting styles in the martial arts technique.

Angelina Jolie plays Tigress, a play on the tiger fighting technique, and stated, "They explained to me that there are all different styles of kung fu, and hers is attack. There’s no defense. It’s just attack, attack, attack…so that makes her a very interesting character."

The monkey fighting technique is by far the most fluid moving character of the lot, he just doesn't fight with his limbs, and he's got his tail to swing around too. It was clear that only Jackie Chan would do justice to this character. Chan remarks, "I think the writers and the animators have watched my movements, my characters, my…everything! It seems like they copied me, which is nice. Monkey is acrobatic, playful and confuses the enemy very easily."

Whilst the Monkey confuses, Viper shocks through stealth and obfuscation. Lucy Liu didn't need too much convincing to take on the role of the serpent, "When I first came onto the project, they had a computer version of what they had in mind for the different characters, including Viper. When I saw the drawings of Viper, she had these two beautiful lotus flowers on top of her head. They didn’t really have to sell me hard on it, you know?"

If Viper is all about stealth, then Crane is all about grace. Comedian David Cross brought his signature dry wit to give the elegant bird a distinctive voice among the Five. His comic timing is wonderfully put to use, playing a slightly perturbed kung fu warrior. "I think Crane represents the Everyman," says Cross, "or in this case, 'Everycrane.' I would admit that Crane’s voice is distinctly similar to mine. He’s very cool. So, I guess in that way, we’re alike."

Finally, fellow comedian Seth Rogen portrays the most wound up of all the characters, the Mantis. Proving that size doesn't matter, Mantis is extremely precise and very quick, in wit and in fight. "When they called me, I thought, ‘perfect.’ I’ve always wanted to play a mantis, so I thought it was oddly coincidental that they had called," Rogen jokingly states.

And finally what cast would be complete without the villain of the story? Enter Tai Lung, menacingly voiced by Ian McShane. The Englishman played the epitome of evil on HBO's Deadwood and didn't try too hard in his portrayal of the evil snow leopard which often mimics George Sanders' portrayal of Shere Khan in Disney's Jungle Book animated movie.

The action sequences are breathtaking, intricate and initially very amusing. Though actors give voice to the characters, it is the animation that makes them spring into action, and they do a lot of that in Kung Fu Panda. Head of Character Animation Dan Wagner was charged with establishing the style of animation for each character — how they move and how they behave. "Having furry animals kick each other’s butt is a fun idea. We brought in someone with zoological training, a bio-mechanist named Stuart Sumida, who’s very knowledgeable on how animals are put together and how they move. We had a few classes with Stuart, going over each of our specific animals, just how they operate and how they behave."

And the homework clearly pays off in each of the fight sequences. But it's not just that homework that pays off, after four years of hard work, each of the movie's elements, characters and actors create a world of wonder, excitement, funny movements and genuine message.

1 comment:

sidrah said...

have yet to watch! herads it a great movie though