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Kung Fu Panda & Secrets of the Furious Five DVD Review (Pandamonium Double Pack)

Kung Fu Panda movie poster Kung Fu Panda

Theatrical Release: June 6, 2008 / Running Time: 92 Minutes / Rating: PG

Directors: John Stevenson, Mark Osborne /Writers: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger (screenplay); Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris (story)

Voice Cast: Jack Black (Po), Dustin Hoffman (Shifu), Angelina Jolie (Tigress), Ian McShane (Tai Lung), Jackie Chan (Monkey), Seth Rogen (Mantis), Lucy Liu (Viper), David Cross (Crane), Randall Duk Kim (Oogway), James Hong (Mr. Ping), Dan Fogler (Zeng), Michael Clarke Duncan (Commander Vachir), Wayne Knight (Gang Boss), Kyle Gass (KG Shaw), JR Reed (JR Shaw), Laura Kightlinger (Awed Ninja), Tanya Haden (Smitten Bunny), Stephen Kearin (Gong Pig, Grateful Bunny)

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Pandamonium DVD Double Pack (Widescreen, Full Screen) / 1-Disc DVD (Widescreen, Full Screen, Spanish Full, Wrapped & Ready for Christmas Full) / Blu-ray Disc


Po dreams of being an awesome martial arts warrior, but such a lifestyle is a far cry from reality, where he works as a waiter in his father's noodle restaurant.
Incidentally, Po is a talking panda who lives in China, but then you should know that entering a movie called Kung Fu Panda.

Panda is one of the latest films from DreamWorks Animation, a studio that presently rivals Pixar's crowd-drawing consistency while churning out twice as many movies. Even if the typical moviegoer can't be expected to correctly match the many CGI films of the past few years with their respective makers, Pixar and DreamWorks have taken pride in their differing approaches to the medium. Pixar has strived to advance the art form while pushing themselves to be inimitable; its efforts have been rewarded with near-unanimous praise and three Animated Feature Oscar statues. DreamWorks' movies are more tailored to being funny in the here and now; reviews haven't always been kind, but regardless, the films find droves of viewers in theaters and on DVD.

While bridging the gap between the two styles, Kung Fu Panda managed to seize the winning blend expected of its chief competitor's output: critical acclaim and commercial success. As far as the latter is concerned, Panda proved to be a formidable foe to the Pixar summer entry. Opening three weeks later, WALL•E narrowly won the domestic earnings battle ($223 million to $215 M), but Panda is the handy victor in worldwide grosses ($632 M to $521 M). Right now, the two hits look like the frontrunners for next February's animation Academy Award.

Though he dreams of grand action, panda protagonist Po (voiced by Jack Black) has a life filled with noodles. Master Oogway points at the new Dragon Warrior... and it's Po!

At first glance, Panda looks loud and broad, like a computer-animated version of Beverly Hills Ninja run through DreamWorks' joke machine. In fact, it's not anything like that. Instead of pop songs, cultural references, and a two-tiered execution of innuendo winks and gas jokes, Panda gives us a fine realization of a follow-your-dreams story. Allowing it to take flight is the identifiable protagonist. The rotund panda Po is a good showcase for the comic stylings of Jack Black. Black's physicality translates to the role remarkably well; he is Po and Po, him. The marriage of character and actor is a stroke of genius that animation casting hasn't seen since Robin Williams embodied Aladdin's Genie.

Reluctant to share his martial arts aspirations with his father, a goose named Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong), Po seems destined for a life in which his greatest achievement will be to learn the secret ingredient of his family's famous soup recipe. But, a funny thing happens on Po's trip to see his heroes, the fabled Furious Five, in action. In front of a stadium of excited spectators, the Five put on a kung fu showcase like no other, in anticipation of one being chosen Dragon Warrior, the highest honor known to the Valley of Peace.

Shut out of the ceremony, Po tries a number of ways to get inside the arena. The one that works not only gains him admission, it puts him in the path of philosophical Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim). To great surprise and against all wisdom, Oogway selects Po for Dragon Warrior. The Five's red panda Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is outraged by the decision and expects the untrained, out of shape Po to give up his post shortly.

Only Po doesn't give up, despite the hints and discouragement dropped by his idols and Shifu. Instead, he trains hard and tries to make sense of his bizarre designation. Meanwhile, the most feared individual around -- snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) -- threatens to escape his high security imprisonment and, in doing so, overturn the order in the land. When Po learns of this and Tai Lung's intriguing past as an adopted foundling, his own calling (to obtain and protect the legendary Dragon Scroll) takes on new significance.

The Furious Five and their master (left to right, Mantis, Monkey, Tigress, Viper, Shifu, and Crane) are bewildered by the sight of Po warming himself up. Fierce snow leopard Tai Lung sends a message by gripping Zeng upon escaping from prison.

Kung Fu Panda could very easily have been made as a live-action film with a human cast. In fact, I suspect that may have been the intended destination of the concept by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris. Those two, new to animation and family audiences, previously penned Dolph Lundgren's Men of War and Chow Yun-Fat's Bulletproof Monk.

The animal cast is a somewhat curious choice. It certainly makes the film a lot more marketable. At the same time, it introduced the risk of being dismissed as "yet another talking animal film." The species depicted are native to the film's setting and reinforce the Chinese flavor that the predominantly white cast doesn't negate. The Furious Five most benefit from the species diversity; there's no mistaking the serious Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie) for the diminutive Praying Mantis (Seth Rogen), or Monkey (Jackie Chan) for Viper (Lucy Liu).

Though no strangers to animation or film, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger ("King of the Hill") and directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson (a longtime storyboard artist) haven't helmed a project of this degree before. Perhaps that is to their advantage, as an avoidance of lazy shortcuts and tired formulas helps ensure the familiar arc feels fresh. Panda is no masterpiece, but it adeptly keeps us invested and entertained by a tale that should feel a lot more off-the-wall.

As part of the training process, Shifu shows Po the birthplace of kung fu. Pandas dream in 2-D, or at least that's what Po does at the start of "Kung Fu Panda" as he poses boldly with his heroes.

The tone is key here.
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Rather than opt for the joke barrage and sentimental interludes of Madagascar and the Shrek films, Panda runs with a subdued sense of humor that meshes comfortably with a story played straight. There are some laughs and some non-laughs, but the comedy is secondary to the universe from which earnest heart emerges. Panda does go a bit heavy on action sequences (as the title warns us). But as far as martial arts movies go, I find this one more accessible and visually interesting than its live-action contemporaries.

Making this a very DreamWorks weekend, the studio follows up yesterday's theatrical opening of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa with an unheard of Sunday DVD debut of Kung Fu Panda. The global blockbuster reaches stores in five different SKUs, with a sixth due Thanksgiving week. Likely to be the best-seller is the standard single-disc DVD, offered separately in widescreen and fullscreen. That disc also forms half of this review's subject, which shrinkwrap dubs a Pandamonium Double Pack. The other half is Secrets of the Furious Five, a brand new 25-minute spin-off short bolstered by some additional bonus features.

Blu-ray adopters get just one available version, with Secrets at least initially being a DVD exclusive. Removing any suspicions of a correctable clerical oversight, CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg remarked at last week's DreamWorks Q3 earnings call: "On the Kung Fu Panda home video, I don't think that Blu-Ray will be a meaningful percentage of our sales."

Buy Kung Fu Panda & Secrets of The Furious Five: Pandamonium Double Pack DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, French, Spanish),
Dolby Digital Surround (English)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Most Extras Subtitled
Release Date: November 9, 2008
Suggested Retail Price: $34.98
Two single-sided discs (DVD-9 & DVD-5)
Two Black Keepcases
Also available in Single-Disc DVD: Widescreen, Fullscreen, Spanish Full Screen, Wrapped & Ready for Christmas Full Screen; Full Screen Pandamonium DVD Double Pack; and on Blu-ray Disc

VIDEO and AUDIO

DreamWorks' 10th computer-animated film release overall, Kung Fu Panda is the first framed for the 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The preferred DVD edition preserves that. The case artwork makes little distinction of the format, and I can already see those shopping at retailers with a pan & scan fetish buying the wrong version by mistake. (Not to mention, using gas and paying sales tax.)
To get to the heart of this section, the DVD does not disappoint in either picture or sound. I'm not really sure how it could. After all, a film that cost $130 million to make is bound to boast considerable production values. And putting digital movies on a digital format more or less eliminates the potential for trouble. So you can help me out here by taking any adjective considered desirable of video (e.g., clean, sharp, colorful) and putting it in the superlative. Voila!

The film delivers some really nice visuals. Its stylized characters lend themselves to action that upholds stretchy cartoon laws. The warm colors and wonderfully detailed environments please verily.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack also excels. A few lively kung fu sequences expectedly stand out most, but the audio is always brimming with life in tactful ways that are easy to appreciate but not overbearing.

Pre-title-billed star Jack Black is just one of eleven recognizable voice actors seen in "Meet the Cast." The challenging drawbridge sequence is one of the animation topics addressed in "Pushing the Boundaries", which shows it here in an unfinished state. Goofy men in white make the sounds of Shifu and Po's training session.

BONUS FEATURES

The DVD's longest and top-listed extra is one not even mentioned on the case: a feature audio commentary by directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne. They do an adequate job of speaking over their film. As this is their first time making something like this, they're understandably a bit overeager to dole out credit to contributing filmmakers and their inspirations. But when they're not doing that or overexplaining the dramatic and color meanings of what's on screen,
they have some good stories to share, touching on concepts that didn't quite make it into the film and pointing out inside jokes and tidbits.

The first and longest of seven short video bonuses, "Meet the Cast" (13:14) lets the recognizable voice actors discuss their characters and co-stars, while the directors add some additional thoughts. Though promotional and underscoring the questionable value DreamWorks places on big name talent, there's enough substance to justify a viewing. Plus, recording session footage is always fun to see, even when it's staged for cameras.

"Pushing the Boundaries" (7:00) covers some of the film's technical achievements: having the characters pull off convincing kung fu, managing fur, and realizing ambitious effects sequences. It's too brief and undermined by rampant appearances by partner HP's logo.

"Sound Design" (3:50) pays some attention to taken-for-granted foley work. It's superficial, but should impress kids who haven't seen similar pieces on other animated film DVDs.

Kids follow their master's lead in the music video for Cee-Lo's "Kung Fu Fighting" cover. The executive pasta chef of Beverly Hills' Mr. Chow restaurant shows off his noodle-making skills. This Asian girl sure seems happy to demonstrate "How to Use Chopsticks."

The film's obligatory end credits cover of Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting" is treated to a music video (2:30). In it, performer Cee-Lo Green sings, while a martial arts instructor and his young pupils show off their dance moves. The video includes some passing glimpses of Jack Black, who provides the echo vocals.

"Mr. Ping's Noodle House" (4:40) shows us how the executive pasta chef at Beverly Hills restaurant Mr. Chow makes noodles out of dough. Food Network host Alton Brown ("Iron Chef America") offers commentary and takes us through the visually fascinating process, then uncouthly digs in. Appropriately enough, this is followed by "How to Use Chopsticks" (2:55), in which a smiley Asian girl demonstrates proper chopstick technique and etiquette while they're taught by an unseen narrator.

The 2-minute "Conservation International: Help Save Wild Pandas" has Jack Black talking about wild pandas and encouraging viewers to help save the species' preferred habitat.

Use your remote control's arrows to defend against flying objects in Crane's game. Choose the path to not getting burned in Viper's part of the Dragon Warrior Training Academy. One of countless pages of HP printables, this sheet has what you need to add Tigress, Crane, Shifu, and Mantis to an elaborate Pagoda Diorama. Though you'll need the bonus disc's quiz to determine your fighting style, the single-disc's DVD-ROM section includes a printable document on all six outcomes.

Dragon Warrior Training Academy serves up five games inspired by scenes in the film. Each of the Furious Five has an activity for you: leaping through talon rings (Monkey), weaving through a gauntlet (Mantis), deflecting flying objects (Crane), punching out non-prickly targets (Tigress), and treading across a fiery path (Viper). They're challenging, which is rarely true of set-top games. They're also frustrating; one wrong move or a moment of indecision and you're treated to a clip of Po painfully failing and forced to start again.
Of help is the fact that each game plays out the same way every time, putting your ability to memorize sequences to the test. You're sure to need multiple attempts to win most of them; I needed dozens of tries to beat a couple. Your prize for mastering all five, a 35-second congratulations with sound clips, isn't much incentive, but with enough patience and persistence, these provide more fun than your typical DVD game.

Nothing new, the DreamWorks Animation Video Jukebox offers promotional 1-2 minute musical clips from Shrek, Shrek 2, Shrek the Third, Shark Tale, Madagascar, Over the Hedge, Flushed Away, and Bee Movie.

Finally, we get individually-accessible trailers for Monsters vs. Aliens, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, and Secrets of the Furious Five, which also play upon disc insertion. Kung Fu's own trailers and promos are sadly nowhere to be found.

On the DVD-ROM side, we get a slew of printables, some of which can be appreciated on Adobe Reader without using ink. Among the items offered in "HP Printables" are customizable shrinkable backpack tags, a tangram puzzle, activities, cootie catcher fortune tellers, lunchbox stationary, embroidery patterns, temporary tattoos, and materials for making a pop-up card, Chinese food takeout boxes, Po and Shifu fabric dolls, stick puppets, three-dimensional versions of characters with paper folding, paper lanterns, and a diorama.

Those are some potentially fun projects for crafts fans, although as the given estimates warn, some require up to two hours. All of this stuff and more is freely available online, so while you're spared some downloads, you're not getting anything that others can't. The section's obvious ulterior motive is to inspire purchases of a quality printer, paper supplies, and more ink, all of which are sold by the prominently-mentioned sponsor.

Exclusive to the DVD, "Land of the Panda Printables" are best suited for computer viewings. They tie into (and repeat) DVD extras, most of which are limited to the Secrets of the Furious Five disc. These pages contain information on Chinese Zodiac signs, the Five's fighting styles, and using chopsticks.

Po lets the bunny pupils of his beginner's kung fu class in on "The Secrets of the Furious Five." Young Tigress learns the value of discipline while playing dominoes in an orphanage in "The Secrets of the Furious Five."

SECRETS OF THE FURIOUS FIVE

The main attraction of the bonus disc is the title short, Secrets of the Furious Five (24:32). In it, Shifu gives Po one of his toughest tasks yet: teaching beginner's kung fu to a class of young bunnies. Po holds the kiddies captive with stories of how trying experiences imparted values of patience, courage, confidence, discipline, and compassion in the members of the Furious Five.
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The five character-developing backstories are depicted in the stylized 2-D animation of Panda's opening and closing, while the present-day Po and bunnies material maintains the warm, pleasing computer animation of the film it follows.

Though the piece briefly flirts with a hyper and jokey style unbefitting it, it soon finds the right tone to entertain while being taken seriously. Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, David Cross, and Randall Duk Kim reprise their roles. Max Koch does a convincing Seth Rogen as Mantis, Jackie Chan's son Jaycee handles Monkey's voice, and Tigress and Viper are portrayed young enough to account for Angelina Jolie and Lucy Liu's absences. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and your choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 or plain Surround, this fun featurette-length short delivers cinema-worthy picture and sound.

Additional bonus features are divided into two sections, though I can't figure out on what basis.

Tigress is one of six characters you can "Learn to Draw" on the bonus disc. Have fun with noises in the Kung Fu Panda Sound Machine DVD-ROM activity. This is the Kung Fu Panda video game at its dullest. If you've got enough computer power, you'll get a rush from the fun kung fu action.

Po's Power Play encompasses three listings.

"Learn to Draw" provides step-by-step instructions for drawing Po, Tigress, Mantis, Monkey, Crane, and Viper. On Po, opening animator James Baxter -- the British man that big studios now turn to for 2-D animation -- takes us through drawing the hero in an on-camera featurette (8:20). More generic, the Furious Five demonstrations run 3 to 5 minutes and could have improved playback for those trying to follow the directions and progressive model carefully.

"Dumpling Shuffle" is a set-top version of three-card Monte game, in which you have to keep your eye on the bowl covering a dumpling. Simple yet fun once or twice.

To enjoy the section's "Pandamonium Activity Kit", you've got to turn again to DVD-ROM.

"Kung Fu Panda Sound Machine" is a fun little activity which lets you tinker with the audio of 10 scenes from the film. In addition to toggling dialogue, you can fill in three channels choosing from 53 sound effects, 17 music clips, and 7 character clips. For most, it's a challenge to see how silly you can make a scene using preselected audio.

Accessing the demo of Activision's Kung Fu Panda video game requires an installation that takes several minutes. It also required more processing power and RAM than my preferred 2-year-old desktop had to offer, making it unbearably sluggish there. On a more recent laptop, this was a lot of fun. As Po, you've got to beat up a steady stream of frisky opponents. Little effort is needed to achieve this and look great doing it. Great graphics and smooth gameplay make this worth testing if you've got the computing power.

Much less elaborate is a demo of Activision's Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa video game. As Marty the zebra, you kick luggage from a conveyor belt onto a plane. There are three levels to this mini-game demo, which takes up only a small portion of the screen and requires no installation.

Disc 1's two sections of Printables are repeated here as well.

Choreographer Hi-Hat leads children in the Panda Dance. Learn about the Year of the Monkey and the 11 other signs of the Chinese Zodiac. Because everyone born in the same year is pretty much the same. A real mantis appears in the "Animals of Kung Fu Panda." I'd prefer the movie version even if it didn't talk like Seth Rogen.

The remaining five extras fall under Land of the Panda.

Here, you can "Learn the Panda Dance" (4:25) with choreographer Hi-Hat. She and her kid pupils make the character-inspired moves look easier and more fun than they are. No bang-feathering?!

"Do You Kung Fu?" attempts to answer that with a "yes"
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as it briefs you on the basics and the six fighting styles in 1-2 minute clips. A narrator describes moves, which brightly dressed martial arts children perform.

The nifty "Inside the Chinese Zodiac" tells you what animal represents the year you were born, assuming you were born between 1924 and 2019. Once that's revealed, you get more information on your animal sign in text and five audio clips that offer Chinese pronunciation, believed personality traits, compatibility with other signs, and famous people born in the corresponding years.

"Animals of Kung Fu Panda" (6:15) considers the cultural reputations and fighting styles of the species characterized in the film's Furious Five, laying narration over film clips, nature footage, and the active children from above. An apt follow-up is the quiz "What Fighting Style Are You?", in which your answers to 8 multiple choice personality questions reveal which of the animals you most resemble. I got Tiger.

Your pet preferences are just part of the personality profile quiz that answers the question "What Fighting Style Are You?" Each disc's main menu opts for Po silhouettes and Chinese symbols. Do you Kung Fu? Choose from seven video options or just admire the colorful cast photo on the menu.

MENUS and PACKAGING

The Kung Fu Panda menus opt for the 2-D animation style of the film's opening dream sequence and end credits. Score excerpts, Chinese symbols, and Po silhouette cursors all provide flavor, although you might find the main menu too eager to start the film. Secrets of the Furious Five's menus are very similar.

Further emphasizing the unusual approach taken for the bonus disc, the two-pack stands its DVDs side by side in stores. Once opened, the standard keepcases separate, ready to occupy more shelf space than they should. Kung Fu has two inserts composed of advertisements and a couple of Chuck E. Cheese coupons.

Atop a cliff against an orange sunset sky, Po strikes an iconic kung fu panda pose. The Furious Five are ready to put their unique, dynamic skills to the test.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

If there were no Pixar, DreamWorks Animation would probably earn a lot more praise for its storytelling and visuals. The studio would be kings, their Oscar hopes soaring and their stellar 21st century box office record looking even more impressive. But there is a Pixar and even their weakest film compares to a DreamWorks effort as likable as Kung Fu Panda.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't celebrate Panda; it is technically sound, emotionally investable, charming, clever, and easy on the eyes. Farsighted by the studio's standards, the film's design should grant it more longevity than most of its kin. While it's no instant classic, it belongs to a small handful of this year's movies that I can recommend without hesitation.

Kung Fu Panda comes to DVD with flawless demo quality picture and sound. In DreamWorks fashion, the bonus features are large in number yet short in length and fairly forgettable. Young kids are the target audience for much of the offerings and they should find fun in the diverse assortment of video and paper activities. It's unfortunate that you must opt for the pricier 2-disc version to acquire the extra with by far the most appeal, the fun half-hour Secrets of the Furious Five. With release date discounts, the Double Pack runs you $7 more than just the standard DVD. That's sort of a lot to pay for something that should have easily fit on the movie's disc. Whichever way you go, Panda deserves a place in your collection.

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Related Reviews:
New to DVD: Shrek the Halls • WALL•E • Star Wars: The Clone Wars • Get Smart • Hellboy II: The Golden Army • Walt Disney Treasures: Dr. Syn
DreamWorks Animation: Bee Movie • Shrek the Third • Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa | Animated Comedies: Surf's Up • The Incredibles
2008 Summer Blockbusters: Iron Man • Hancock (Unrated Edition) • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Mulan • TMNT • The Emperor's New Groove • Brother Bear • Pom Poko • The Foot Fist Way • Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior

The Voice Cast of Kung Fu Panda:
Jack Black: Tropic Thunder (Director's Cut) | Dustin Hoffman: The Graduate | Angelina Jolie: Beowulf (Director's Cut)
Jackie Chan: Rush Hour 3 • Around the World in 80 Days | Seth Rogen: The Spiderwick Chronicles • Knocked Up • Superbad
Lucy Liu: Tinker Bell • Mulan II • Chicago | David Cross: Alvin and the Chipmunks | James Hong & Dan Fogler: Balls of Fury

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Reviewed November 8, 2008.



Text copyright 2008 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2008 DreamWorks Animation SKG and DreamWorks Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.