It’s summer, so it must be time for a big budget, all-star cast, computer-animated movie involving talking animals. One that’s been designed to appeal as much to parents as to kids. Ever since Toy Story way back in 1995 – but especially since Shrek in 2001 – it has become tradition for there to be a big summer computer-animated movie standoff, usually between the dominant CGI studios Dreamworks and Pixar. Kung Fu Panda is Dreamworks’ Summer 2008 offering – they’re the chaps behind the Shrek movies, among others – with Disney/Pixar’s WALL-E out in a couple of weeks.
Of course, we’ve had plenty of sub-par attempts to “do a Shrek”, as it’s become known. Every animation department in Hollywood has been trying – and most often failing – to repeat that almost impossible feat of creating a movie that can genuinely appeal to all ages. Even the team behind Shrek itself managed to fail with Shrek the Third last year. There have been countless near-misses too, such as Dreamworks’ Antz back in 1998 (an underrated kids’ film with a computer-animated Woody Allen in the lead), Warner Bros’ Happy Feet in 2006, and 20th Century Fox’s Ice Age movies in 2002 and 2006, to name but a few.
Have the people behind Kung Fu Panda – a writing/directing team with surprisingly little in the way of high-profile credits to their names – managed to do the near-impossible and create the new Shrek? A bit much to ask, even with a voice cast that includes the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu.
As it turns out, Kung Fu Panda is pretty much the closest we’ve had to repeating the success of Shrek since, well, Shrek 2. Its premiere at the notoriously critical (not to mention grown-up) Cannes Film Festival earlier this year was greeted by a riotous and sustained standing ovation. It has already become Dreamworks’ third highest grossing film at the US box-office. When it opened in the States last month, critics were wild in their praise for what is, lest we forget, a film about a Jack Black-voiced giant panda who dreams of martial arts superstardom. Hardly The Godfather or Citizen Kane, yet the critics couldn’t get enough – even high-brow Time magazine praised it as: “a master course in visual art and ultra-satisfying entertainment”.
High praise indeed and sure to have raised expectations on this side of the Atlantic to dangerous levels. When so much good has been said of something, the chances for disappointment are always heightened. This is largely why Shrek the Third met with such a harsh critical response – when you’re expecting the height of wit and entertainment you are always going to be disappointed. The opposite can also be true – if you’re expecting rubbish (as many critics would have been with Kung Fu Panda, giving Jack Black’s track record of poor film after poor film), then anything halfway decent will be such a pleasant surprise that you may well mistake it for genius.
Kung Fu Panda is certainly not likely to be remembered as an all-time classic, though it should nicely stand the test of time as a DVD favourite. It is, however, most certainly both funny and engaging enough to warrant a family outing to the cinema.
Even people without children will enjoy it whether they’ve ever seen a martial arts movie or not. As a bit of family summer fun, you can’t do much better. This is certainly a very strong addition to Dreamworks’ already impressive catalogue. It even makes up for the disappointment of Shrek the Third.