Film Reviews: 'Kung Fu Panda', 'Mongol'

The weekend’s big movie for fully grown children isYou Don’t Mess With the Zohan, the new Judd Apatow-branded comedy starring Adam Sandler as an Israeli commando who becomes a Manhattan hairdresser. But your faithful correspondent hasn’t seen it. Blame it on Cannes. The film was screened while I was flying home. Then my immune system promptly crashed and burned, leaving me too ill to attend a second Toronto screening. Lesson learned: I vow to never again attempt surviving on four hours sleep a night for two weeks running. I did find the time to watch the Zohan trailer, however, and it seems to require no further explanation. Word on the street from friends who did preview the entire movie: You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is more of an Adam Sandler movie than a Judd Apatow movie.

For those in the mood for an old-fashioned action picture, this weekend offers two choices: Kung Fu Panda, an animated feature for the whole family, and Mongol, a period epic for those who don’t mind their popcorn splattered with a little blood and gore. Both exploit the ancient warrior codes of the East, and are laden with philosophical aphorisms. Both also happen to be rare examples of entertainment that’s relatively irony-free.

Kung Fu Panda

I caught the afternoon premiere of this animated blockbuster as a break from all the dire and serious drama in competition at Cannes. The previous day, I’d watched Jack Black, who voices the panda, cavort on the Carlton pier with a gang in bear suits. (‘Kung Fu Pandering’ blog & video). I’d also saw Black hold court with co-stars Angelina Jolie and Dustin Hoffman at a zoo-like press conference for the film, where Black played the class clown, a pregnant and regal Angelina talked about having children, and Hoffman, the old sage , lamented the current state of the industry, saying that “Hollywood in the 70s was making the same kind of movies that the indies are making today.”

And Kung Fu Panda? Well, for a kiddie animation spectacle I’d give it more than a passing grade. There are some terrific set pieces of animated martial arts, notably one involving chopsticks. There’s a fabulous escape scene that involves a vast, diabolically designed dungeon. The filmmakers, who are keen martial arts fans, were aiming to mix the grace of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with the slapstick mayhem of Kung Fu Hustle. And they’ve succeeded up to a point.

But the script is rather ham-fisted and moralistic. The picture lacks the all-ages wit and dazzle of a masterpiece like Ratatouille. Perhaps we’ve become too picky with animation. Now that we’ve seen what’s possible, we want to be blown away by more than visual virtuosity. We want to see a film that seems in and of itself miraculous, reinventing the genre with the kind of magic that makes you wonder how on earth it found it way to to the screen. Kung Fu Panda is not on that level.

The story revolves around a clumsy, overweight panda named Po (Jack Black), a geeky fan of martial arts who is resigned to a future in his family’s noodle shop—until a fluke designates him as a chosen warrior to fulfill an ancient prophecy. A jaded guru (Dustin Hoffman) has the job of training Po so he can fulfill his destiny to become a kung fu master. Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Jackie Chang voice a menagerie of jealous rivals called the Furious Five. They’re a weird mix—from a tiger (Jolie) to a praying mantis (Rogen). Deadwood‘s Ian McShane brings black-hearted menace to the the role of villain. (Try to imagine Hannibal Lecter as a snow leopard.) Among the actors, Black may have found his ideal incarnation as an lard-ass panda. And Hoffman, who has somehow avoided voicing animation up until now, delivers the movie’s stand-out performance, filling out the gruff stereotype of his role with the kind of idiosyncratic detail that has become his signature.

The script is full of empowering advice for nerds, underachievers and fat kids. It’s a familiar message—with enough effort, anyone can be a superhero. I suppose the same doctrine informed Ratatouille, and countless other cartoon features. But in this case, the script lacks the quicksilver dexterity of the visuals. There’s not much subtlety in a movie that puts an obese panda bear with a eating disorder through kung fu boot camp—first dangling food in front of him as an incentive, and then showing how, once he becomes absorbed in the task at hand, he’ll lose interest in stuffing his face.



This ambitious epic from Russian auteur Sergei Bodrov is just as unsubtle in its own way. But I found this heroic epic about Ghenghis Khan more rewarding. Perhaps that’s because it’s not kiddie fare. For a closer look at Mongol , go to my piece in this week’s magazine: Ghenghis, patron saint of the steppe


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