Monday, June 16, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

Admittedly, I'm not that keen on CG animated films compared to traditional drawn animation. For me, animation is still first and foremost about drawn cartoons that seemingly spring to life on the big screen. However, CG films have been steadily improving in their ability to show organic, "Squash and Stretch" character animation, so I must give them credit where it's due.

I just saw Dreamworks' latest film, "Kung Fu Panda", the other day and have to say that for the most part I was very impressed. As one who personally loathes the "Shrek" films, I was glad to see that "Kung Fu Panda" was refreshingly free of all the stupid pop culture humour that I usually associate with the Dreamworks product. In fact, it is a pretty good script with a slight but quite serviceable plot. Particularly impressive is the visual look of the film. The art direction is quite beautiful in its depiction of the Chinese landscape: all lyrical form and colour. As my forte is character design, I also have to state how appealing the characters are in terms of shape, colour and movement.

Martial arts films have never been my thing, so I can't say I was enthralled by all of the kung fu action, especially the battle between the "Furious Five" and the villainous Tai Lung on the bridge. However, I do understand that the filmmakers were hoping to appeal to fans of martial arts films, so I don't begrudge them skewing it to that audience where they could. From an animation point of view, though, I don't think animation has ever been the best medium to show that kind of fast action, as a lot of it fails to read clearly. Which brings me to my real concern with this film, and that is action at the expense of characterization.

In regard to characterization, I feel they did an admirable job at developing the relationship between the clumsy panda, Po, and the kung fu Master, Shifu. These animated performances I thought were top-notch. The animators deserve a lot of praise here, though I think it's only fair to acknowledge the vocals by Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman too, as these two actors gave a lot of personality in their dialogue to give the animators something really fun to animate in terms of body language and facial expression. Hoffman's performance was a real pleasure, considering this was his first role in an animated film, I believe. And the battle over the bowl of dumplings was terrific as well-choreographed visual humour.

But this is also where I have a big problem with the film, as Dreamworks has also hired a bunch of big name actors to voice the "Furious Five" group of kung fu animals. The problem is, having paid all that money to be able to put Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu on the marquee, they haven't given them anything much to do. In fact, if I hadn't already read that they were in the cast, I'd have been none the wiser as to who the voices were, as none of them are given any significant amount of dialogue to perform, nor do any of them have particularly notable vocal qualities to begin with! Clearly, Dreamworks has only hired them for marketing purposes, as these actors really bring nothing to the table, though their relatively small amount of dialogue suggests that they really haven't been given an opportunity to show their potential either. I was hoping that Lucy Liu, in the role of a viper, might have been fun had she been allowed to revisit her "Ling" character from "Ally McBeal", for more comedic venomous dialogue. But, alas, she was denied the opportunity. As it is, these five characters don't amount to real personalities on screen, with only the Tigress showing some slight characterization as a jealous type who expected to be the chosen one.

Likewise, I felt that the Five were wasted in terms of their visual potential too. If one is using animals to portray their namesake kung fu moves, why not also use the animals' physical forms and personalities for more comedic effect in devising appropriate sight gags? When I teach "Anthropomorphism" in my Character Design class at Sheridan, one of the film clips I like to show is the soccer match from Disney's "Bedknobs and Broomsticks". This is a wonderful example of casting animals as human types, yet still allowing much of the animal's own physical traits and perceived personality to dictate the humour. All of the gags in this clip are unique to the individual animals and the way they might relate to each other in the wild. Here is that clip to illustrate what I mean. I really think "Kung Fu Panda" missed an opportunity in not utilizing the animal identities of the "Furious Five" to full effect.


Adrian C. said...

I pretty much agree with everything you said here. The movie was a delightful surprise and is probably Dreamworks' best CG feature to date. It looks good and thankfully lacks the tiresome pop culture references so many animated films feel they need to contain.

I, too, feel the Furious Five are a wasted opportunity. Even if they had more dialogue I am not sure their current voices would have been the best choices.

However, I think the martial arts stuff works well enough. From what I remember, I think the action reads clearly enough but maybe opinion might change after another viewing.

In any event, the film is an unexpected pleasure. I hope Dreamworks remembers what they did well in this film and applies it to their future projects.

John Nunnemacher said...

Interesting observations, thank you for sharing them! I agree that this was probably one of the best movies to come out of ShrekWorks, and was blissfully thankful that it wasn't loaded with hip pop culture references like I was expecting.

One thing I found particularly frustrating was the opening and the credit sequences. Even before I saw the film I was thinking how much better these characters would look as classically designed and animated 2-D characters. And then the movie opens with that fantastic 2D/computer-assist hybrid sequence with the amazing design (done by James Baxter's studio, if I'm not mistaken), and then the closing credits shows tantalizing little snippets of the characters (done by Shine Studio) goofing around in glorious full 2D animation.

Both sequences were great, but I found they served almost like a nagging tease of "Neener neener, here's a glimpse at what the rest of the movie COULD have looked like!" :)

That said, particularly for Dreamworks, the art direction and animation in the rest of the film was pretty good.

Rory said...

Hey Pete,

I really enjoyed this film and I agree with most of what you're saying here. I particularly agree that the scenes focusing on the relationship between Po and Shifu were full of great character animation and vocal performance. They were highly entertaining to watch. I also really enjoyed the animation and design of the Turtle character; the artists captured his wise but somewhat bumbling personality perfectly. And the facial articulation (based on his toothless mouth) and subtle shaking gave a real sense of his age. I'm not sure if I have seen quite that level of nuance in an old/shaky animated character before. This kind of subtlety is one advantage that computer animation might have over traditional, although if given the choice I could do without it to see drawings alive on the screen again.

As for the Furious Five, I agree that they are not well developed characters, and that all of the star power in their vocal talent is completely useless. Much like with the Captain, the Colonel, and Sgt. Tibbs - stronger, more distinctive, character-actor-type voices may have given these characters more personality (even if just a suggestion of it) despite their few lines and relative lack of screen time. That said, I don't really mind them playing a bit role because it helps keep our attention where it belongs: on Po and Shifu.

This brings me to my last point which is that, while it would be nice for the Furious Five to fight like their animal types (as the animals play soccer in “Bedknobs”) it might not have been possible within the context of this story. If you look at the Furious Five in isolation from the film I would agree that there is a lost opportunity “in not utilizing [their] animal identities… to full effect”. But in the context of the film I’m not sure it is really worth it. I would argue that it would seriously diminish Po's journey of self-realization and his eventual acceptance (and advantageous use) of his own unique animal attributes. That is to say: if the Five were all using their own animal characteristics as part of their fighting style from the very beginning of the film, it really wouldn't be very interesting or meaningful to watch for an hour as Po and Shifu figure out that this is what Po must do as well. To preserve this narrative arc, which is the heart of the story, it seems like the film makers had no choice but to make each one of the Five as straight forward and traditional a Kung Fu warrior as possible. Their primary purpose was to clearly contrast Po’s situation, making his fighting style all the more humourous and his victory all the more special. Thus, the sacrifice of entertainment value in these five minor characters is ultimately forgivable because it enhances the entertainment value of the protagonist and the story as a whole. That said, even if their Kung Fu had to be impressive and straight forward, it might have been nice to see a bit more tiger-ish or snake-like behavior in their acting and dialogue.

Pete Emslie said...

Some very good points being raised here.

John, I agree with you about the beginning and end credits. I too would've loved to have seen the whole film animated traditionally in that dynamic style.

Rory, you make a strong argument for keeping the Furious Five more subdued in contrast to Po in order to keep the focus on his developing ability. Still, the cartoonist in me yearns for more personality animation, which I'm not seeing enough of in contemporary animated films. Just like in that aforementioned clip from "101 Dalmatians", I've always been far more impressed by strong characterization that is demonstrated through the acting and relationship of the characters. It was always evident in classic Disney and I believe that Pixar has been able to carry on the tradition quite admirably too, for the most part. Sometimes, though, I feel as if most animated films of the last 15 to 20 years have placed too much emphasis on expressing simplistic morals like "Always Be Yourself", ad nauseum, at the expense of creating more interesting, quirky personalities based on actual observation of human types.

Andrew Manzanares said...

Hey Pete! Yeah, i agree with you in regards to utilizing the animal traits for antropomorphism. I think the furious 5 (minus Tigress) were kind of one-dimensional and weren't memorable at all and this is due to the lack of really caricaturing each animal's perceived personality stereotypes. They were expendable in my opinon and served no other purpose but to keep Po's "Kung Fu Heroes" storyline. Overall though I enjoyed the movie. The designs were amazing and had that 2-D feel. I rather like it when they use 3D to imitate 2D to get a more graphic, "moving painting" look like in Open Season.

Also I'm a big fan of martial arts movies and it makes me mad that they didn't give Jackie Chan more speaking lines! I mean he's the only one in the cast who actually knows Kung Fu. haha. But that's beside the point.


Trevor Thompson said...

I don't have time to go into too much detail, I just wanted to say that I was surprised by your approval of the movie, Pete.

But I was even more surprised, because I thought I was alone! This is the first CG film that I rated with a B!

I saw it twice to make sure!

- trevor.

Pete Emslie said...

Trevor - Though I will always prefer drawn animation, I have to give CG credit where it's due. There have certainly been advances with recent CG films in terms of fluid, organic, "Squash and Stretch" type animation. Also, I think that the art direction is getting better, with less emphasis towards photorealism and instead aiming for more of an illustrative look. Artistically, I really liked "Open Season", though overall I found it still lacking in the story. The character designs and backgrounds in that film were reminiscent of good cartoony Goldenbook illustrations, which I must applaud them for. Likewise, there is some phenomenal art direction in "Kung Fu Panda" and terrific character animation. For me, the only letdown is in the characterization of the supporting cast. I think they could have done better there.

Andrew _ Yeah, I was also surprised they didn't make more of Jackie Chan's Monkey character. Jackie brought a real charisma and humour to kung fu films and I think he's the type of engaging performer who should be played up more in the movie, especially since the Monkey looks like a funny caricature of him!

Wes Riojas said...

You're totally right about the supporting characters. I was disappointed with how they were not developed. They missed out on so much potential comedy with Seth Rogan and Jackie Chan in the mix. Also, I read the article in Animation Magazine today about the the movie. They said Dreamworks wanted Chan to refrain from adding input to the choreography of his character. Huge mistake, if you ask me.

The marketing was totally misleading when you consider how uninvolved those 5 characters were in the film.

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Dan Chambers said...

A very thoughtful post - thanks!