Kung Fu Panda Blu-ray ReviewNovember 10, 2008
I have to tip my hat to Dreamworks Animation. After viewing what I considered to be poorly constructed trailers for the first Shrek film, the first Madagascar film and more recently Kung Fu Panda, I was unwaveringly convinced all three would succumb to a box office trampling into the red.
Then I saw Shrek and, despite not loving it, did not hate it either. Madagascar proved pudgy penguins guarantee laughs by simply looking at them. And Kung Fu Panda, now available on Blu-ray Disc from Paramount Home Entertainment, overcame the fat joke-infused commercials with a faithful a superb voice-acted Kung Fu coming of age story offering unfiltered eye and ear candy in high definition.
The story of Po (voiced by Jack Black), the Kung Fu Panda, retells the timeless and often revisited tale of an unlikely hero rising from obscurity. What makes Po unlikely is in his Panda genes. Simply put, he too fat to be agile or fast enough to be a Kung Fu Master. Po knows this which is why he spends his life working with his feathered, and obviously not genetically related father making and selling noodles while action figures of his favorite warriors, the Furious Five, adorn his window sill. Through a humorous act of fate, Po finds himself chosen as the Dragon Warrior much to the dismay of not only Foe, but the Kung Fu warriors and master whom he has unintentionally upstaged.
The rest follows a formulaic destiny most animated films are chosen for with Po proving to himself that he can be the Dragon Warrior and his master and Kung Fu peers coming to grips with Po's evolution into something great. The often comical, both intentionally and not, interaction between Po, his squat possum (?) master Shifu and the Furious Five Kung Fu Warriors are good for more than a few laughs. I swore I wanted no part of any "fat joke" but couldn't help but chuckle as Poe first battled then embraced his rotund build. The jokes work within the context of the story, not edited out and into advertisements.
Watching Kung Fu Panda is like throwing a rock into a rainbow and watching all the colors rain down from the sky. The AVC MPEG-4 encoded 2.35:1 1080p transfer takes the wildly sporadic color pattern and presents it a hair short of flawlessly. All the fine skin, fur and clothing details rendered on the various animals in the film, including black and white Po, a pair of tigers and more, are mesmerizing to study. Super slow motion, dizzying fight scenes and everything in between blend perfectly together in sequences staged everywhere from color tree-lined courtyards to a jail tunneled deep within a mountain.
The only flaw spotted occurred when blacks in a scene's background broke up for a brief moment and lost their darkness to some minor blocking and crush. Considering the complexity of this film's visual design that flaw is water under the bridge and long forgotten seconds later, proofed by my not remembering which scene this occurred in. If given the choice to put in Kung Fu Panda or Dreamworks' Madagascar on Blu-ray to demo video, I would give the nod to Kung Fu Panda.
Discovering a sound transfer from a CGI digital-to-digital transfer is commonplace on Blu-ray Disc. Sound aggressiveness is more of an unknown, ranging anywhere from passive to never let's up. Kung Fu Panda's 5.1 Dolby TrueHD lossless audio mix skews towards the latter with strong and sometimes unexpected directional effects for even the most subtle sounds like a door closing, and uninhibited .LFE use that will shake the walls on more than one occasion such as several fireworks mishaps. It is a fantastic mix that showcases the benefits of lossless HD audio much the same that 1080p puts high-def video in a positive light.
Most of the supplemental features are presented in 1080p high definition video. Those that are not are marked as such. Only two, the Blu-ray exclusive Trivia Track and Animator's Corner, are accessible from the in-movie pop-up menu. The others are broken into main categories and then listed within each category.
Trivia Track (Blu-ray exclusive) This track offers up several useless yet interesting facts per minute including animation statistics, inspiration and Jack Black's "third time is a charm" routine for recording lines. It is not too intrusive being positioned in the bottom center portion of the screen and is worth checking out for anyone who moderately enjoyed the film.
Animator's Corner (Blu-ray exclusive) Aspiring artists will get a kick out of this picture-in-picture feature that bounces between scene relevant storyboards and animatics along with filmmakers offering insight into many creative design decisions made. Sound design is also touched upon which is fitting given how impressive it came out.
BD Live (Blu-ray exclusive) Two self-explanatory and incredibly short featurettes are offered via BD-Live: "A Day in the Life: A Shaolin Monk in Training" and "Po Around the World" Each must be downloaded onto the disc which took all of five seconds for both which begs a question I ask often: why were not they on the disc to begin with? Is the BD-50 disc really full? What is interesting about "Po Around the World" is the scene is shows can be watched in one of 12 languages from a pre-roll prompt.
Inside Kung Fu Panda
Filmmakers Commentary - Directors Mark Osborne and John Stevensen team up once again to revisit their hugely successful film. Both speak intelligently from the start by explaining the anime influence for the opening sequence right through to the variety of direction styles utilized throughout the film. At times they get caught up in explaining what is going on but not enough to be a deterrent.
Meet the Cast (13:18) Fun to see Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogan, David Cross, Jackie Chan, Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman and Lucy Liu act and discuss how they came up with their performances. Not fun to her the cheesy voiceover in the introduction, but thankfully it goes away after the title card.
Pushing the Boundaries (7:07) Explores some of the new technologies developed to animate the film including scrapping previous "rigs" used to animate characters that would not allow the motions required for martial arts. None of the short segments within this featurette go to deep into technical design but do touch upon the obstacles faced by the animation team.
Conservation International: Help Save Wild Pandas (2:00) Jack Black adds a comedic twist to Panda conservation.
Po's Power Play
Dragon Warrior: Training Academy (9:09, 480p) An interactive feature where you must beat five mini-games, one from each of the Furious Five. They are mindless but briefly entertaining.
Dumpling Shuffle - Another game, this one requiring you to follow a dumpling under a bowl as it is shuffled around.
Learn to Draw - Easy to follow tutorials to draw each of the Furious Five and Po. I have seen similar features on Disney kids DVDs like Winnie the Poo before and welcome them on big theatrical films just the same.
Sounds and Moves
Sound Design (3:54) A brief journey into creating the film's sound effects. It is always fun to see how these guys "create" unique sounds using random objects.
Kung Fu Fighting Music Video (2:29) If there is one extra to skip, this one is it. Painful does not begin to describe its absurdity.
Learn the Panda Dance (4:32) A dance instruction tutorial for dancing Kung Fu Fighting style. Strictly for the kiddies.
Do You Kung Fu? (24:13) Another instruction video, only this one is much longer and teaches useful Kung Fu poses for real-life styles used to animate Po and the Furious Five.
Land of the Panda
Mr Ping's Noodle House (4:43) Alton Brown from the Food Network hangs out at Mr Chow in California to look at making pasta from scratch. Pretty amazing watching the executive chef work the dough.
How to Use Chopsticks (2:55) Sadly I can use this video tutorial to my advantage and I am sure a lot of American kids will also find use in it.
Inside the Chinese Zodiac (11:33) An informative lesson on the Chinese Zodiac designed for kids but equally as educational for adults. Allows you to determine your Zodiac animal if your birth date is 1924 or later.
Animals of Kung Fu Panda (6:18) The origination of the animal fighting styles used by the Furious Five. Presented as a lesson with voiceover like the previous two featurettes.
What Fighting Style Are You? - An interactive multiple choice question and answer game to determine which animal fighting style suits you. Nice topper after viewing the fighting style extras.
Dreamworks Animation Video Jukebox - Videos from past Dreamworks films including Bee Movie, Madagascar, A Shark's Tale and more.
Trailers - HD trailers are included for Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa and Monsters vs Aliens, due out in 2009.
Watching Kung Fu Panda makes it easy to understand how a fat Panda earned $630 million worldwide at the box office and has a sequel already in the works. A packed Blu-ray package with sharp visuals, a surprisingly enjoyable audio mix and a decent mix of adult and kid-focused extras, despite being broken out into a few too many clickable links, make Kung Fu Panda a blind buy worth kicking at. Although I had a lukewarm response to the Monsters vs. Aliens trailer, I have a feeling Dreamworks Animation is poised to far exceed my expectations yet again.
- Dan Bradley
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