Friday, June 20, 2008

"Boy, that song really sucks!"

This was the line of patter from the album Illegal, Immoral and Fattening by Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylin), two funny guys who used to perform with Frank Zappa, who did a few of their own unique comedy music albums. The song was "Kung Fu Killer," which began with the opening line of a current Top 40 radio song...and this patter...

"Ev'rybody was Kung Fu Fight-ing!" (off key music)

"Boy, that song really sucks!"(laughs and applause)

"You know, we could be of different races and background and stuff,
and we might not have anything at all in common except one thing...
that song su-uuuuuks!

"So if you didn't buy it...and I know I didn't buy it, who the **** bought it?"
(off key music)

"Chinese Negroes, that's who! Watch out for them!"

The problem with Kung Fu Panda is that it does not suck. But it isn't anywhere as good as it should be. And part of it lies in the use of Kung Fu Fighting (with modernized lyrics) as the song over the closing credits. That song is a cliche. So is the story.

It's the same "guy discovers the hero inside him" that is the plot of half the animated features made today. And pretty much all of the Jack Black live-action films as well. Black is the voice of Po, a fat and clumsy panda noodle chef with dreams of being a martial artist, who is selected to train in the supreme dojo. There are already five masters there, with Tigress, Snake, Monkey, Crane and Mantis more-or-less mimicing the real-world martial arts forms named after them.

The master trainer is Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a creature I can't identify, but who looks like a furry Yoda. Just before the senior master of the temple, a turtle named Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) shuffles off this mortal coil in a cloud of cherry blossoms, he commands Shifu to train Po, despite Shifu's supreme annoyance at the fat boy. If you've seen any DreamWorks film you know what will happen, especially when a motivation-free bad guy appears.

The best reason for staying with this film are the performances. Black and Hoffman bring chemistry to their relationship. And so do the animators. Shifu finally finds a way to train Po in the martial arts, all involving dumplings, and it's one of the best animated sequences I can recall in a DreamWorks CGI film.

The animation in the rest of the film often runs too fast. This is a martial arts film, and it isn't enough to see a blur of color and motion. You should be able to see the strikes and dodges the characters are performing, no matter how fast it's supposed to occur. (This blurring may disguise Michelle's traditional gripe about DreamWorks animation, the lousy physics of objects in motion.) There's also problems with the background characters. There's a lot of rabbits and geese in the Valley of Peace, and they all seem characterless. Disney's mass-animated mobs from Hunchback of Notre Dame seem to repeat mass motions, but they have more character than the beasties in this film.

There are actors in this film, good actors, playing good characters, who just don't get enough screen time or interactions in the main story. DreamWorks has been guilty of selling films with the actors' names, which I've complained about before. And in a way, it's a good thing that these names were NOT blasted all over the posters for the film:

Angelina Jolie as Tigress
Lucy Liu as Snake
Jackie Chan as Monkey. Yes, Jackie Freaking Chan.
James Hong as Mr. Ping (the goose that's Po's "father")

But...but...BUT! (I'm sputtering now.) Any two of these actors deserve to be the stars of their own animated film! Their characters are fleshed-out and very appealing. I especially liked Tigress, a perfect blend of femininity and ferocity. And Mr. Ping, the noodle restaurant guy, was touchingly honest as the father who didn't understand Po's dreams, but helps him accomplish them anyway.

When the film ended, I missed the supporting characters more than Jack Black (who was playing, as he always does, Jack Black). DreamWorks hasn't had an animated TV series since the disasterous Father of the Pride. Which means that I won't see these guys again in Kung Fu Panda: The Series.

I left the theater with a friend who raved about how wonderful the film was. But I was troubled. These were great characters, great actors, better-than-normal DreamWorks CGI...saddled to a plot strictly for children. With this capability, with these fine performances, why does DreamWorks keep churning out "believe in yourself" stories intended for little kids? Why can't they stretch their horizons to more complicated and interesting plots?

Kung Fu Panda will entertain an animation fan. But like too many animated films, it's a vehicle to get kids to buy Happy Meals and cheap plastic toys from Evil*Mart. And yes, it's ironic that those toys of Chinese heroes are being made by Chinese slave labor, and sold in a way to make all of us Americans slave labor as well.

One film can't change the economy (although voting for principled candidates in the next election would help). But another change for the good might be if DreamWorks, and a few more animation companies, made films that didn't treat us all like deprived first-graders that needed self-esteem lessons. It's time for good characters like these to start appearing in much better stories.

Good singers, good appearance, good choreography. But boy, that song really sucks.