Kiddie cinema!

Please read this London Times article immediately, because it is the greatest damn thing I have heard about in a good long while. How can it not be when it begins with this sentence: “In a noisy primary school classroom in East London, 15 very small film buffs are arguing about whether The Red Shoes is better than Duck Soup.” Ah! Don’t you want to know more?!

…okay, so you read it? Isn’t it fantastic? I’ve said many times, including right on this here blog while discussing a screening of City Lights, that kids could really love 1920s and 30s slapstick movies because they have the same kind of humor as Bugs Bunny and friends. Kids in the 2000s watching Monsieur Hulot films? C’est merveilleux, oh que j’adore M. Hulot, il est si drôle! And The Red Shoes? It’s based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson! It’s gorgeous to look at like a Technicolor cartoon! How crazy awesome that someone thought not just to show it to a group of kids, but to really get them talking about it. (Although I do hope that Grease was reserved for the slightly older kids—I wouldn’t want to be the parent who has to explain to a seven-year-old the Rizzo pregnancy scare subplot.) And to also get professionals to come talk to the students? Including my beloved Alan Rickman? I’m bursting with the loveliness of it all. I credit much of my own love of all kinds of movies to being exposed to a lot of stuff from the 1930s and 40s as a kid (Fred and Ginger movies were certainly just as common in my house as Disney cartoons), so hearing about this program seriously made my day.

This article proves that movies for kids needn’t be of the boy-meets-talking-dog sorts of genres that talk down to them. Some makers of so-called kids’ movies, such as Pixar, get this and make films that feel timeless and appropriate for all ages. Many other studios making kid-friendly stuff don’t seem to get how smart kids really are. But I’m thinking that maybe the folks over at DreamWorks Animation are starting to seriously catch on….and with that, I’ll segue with only slight awkwardness into a review of their latest film, Kung Fu Panda.

This isn’t a perfect movie the way I consider Finding Nemo or Ratatouille to be, but it is a huge step in that direction for the studio that made such hideousness as Shark Tale and can’t move on from the mediocre-but-lucrative Shrek franchise. Visually, it’s vibrant and fun and at times quite beautiful. The opening sequence—a dream of our main character, Po—features bright, angular hand-drawn animation, serving as both a respectful nod to what came before CGI and as a great contrast that made me appreciate even more just how nice the computer animation looks here. The characters are about fifty times more likable than in other DreamWorks cartoons, and while the simple story doesn’t visit any new territory, the filmmakers realize this and take advantage of it rather than trying to mask it.

Yes, you probably know just from the title exactly how things will play out in this underdog tale. Po the fat, clumsy panda dreams of being a kung fu master instead of running his dad’s noodle shop. Circumstances arise that help him reach his dream, however unlikely it may seem. A word about the dad: Po seems to be the only panda in town and he’s being raised by what appears to be a stork. This is never explained, though a funny moment comes when we almost think Dad’s big confession is coming. I love that this was not explained. Please, show me the kid who couldn’t fill in the logical story that Po was an orphan adopted by a family who couldn’t have kids and didn’t care that their son was different than them. Seriously, the explanation is unnecessary, and that’s the sort of detail I’m referring to when I say that this movie doesn’t talk down to its kid audience.

All that time that’s not spent giving us exposition is filled up with wicked action scenes and glorious training montages instead—Lord, I love a good training montage. The movie showcases some of the best animated fighting I’ve seen, and the big set-piece scenes are enthralling, particularly the villain Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane, aka Al Swearengen!) escaping from his one-man, thousand-guard prison using only a feather. Please note though, if it bothers you when cartoon characters do things like jump upward from a falling object, this may not be the movie for you.

Now for the downside. Though I liked the characters, most are underserved. Po and his master, Shifu, fare alright, but every member of the “Furious Five” seems either one-dimensional (Tigress is determined! Crane doesn’t like to be bothered! Mantis is easy-going!) or non-dimensional (Viper and Monkey are so pointless they didn’t even have enough lines for me to notice they were being voiced by Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan. Come on, if you’re gonna pay Jackie Chan, get your money’s worth). Out of the five, Tigress does most of the real fighting we see, which I felt was a bit of a cop-out. I wanted to really see how a crane or viper or mantis does kung fu without all the requisite body parts, or at least get a sequence of the monkey kicking someone’s ass with his tail, but it never came.

Despite its faults, Kung Fu Panda is by far the best CGI film to come out of its production studio, and for that I really applaud DreamWorks. This movie has heart where its other films only have snarkiness, and it’s the only movie I’ve ever seen from them that I would want to see again.


4 Responses to “Kiddie cinema!”

  1. 1 patty June 12, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    uuugh, grease. those children are being poisoned.

  2. 2 patty June 12, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    ok, why do four of us have the same monster?! there have got to be more monsters, brandi!

  3. 3 Brandi Sperry June 12, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    It does it automatically, I’m sorry!

  4. 4 Becca June 12, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Why to the British seem to “get” kids’ entertainment more than Americans these days? I’ve said this before, but it seems like they treat their young as more intelligent consumers than we do. While Americans are masters of sharp and witty cartoons in both television (Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, Kim Possible) and film (The Emperor’s New Groove, anything Pixar ever), we can’t seem to get our cats herded in the live action/drama department like the Brits (The Sarah Jane Adventures is the first that comes to mind).

    Or maybe it’s just that I don’t watch much kids’ entertainment any more. Maybe there is some perfect successor to The Adventures of Pete & Pete that I just haven’t stumbled upon yet.

    Sidenote: For a children’s show to be a success, the word “adventures” must show up in the title.

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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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