Panda fails to kick out 'funny feature'

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor



I go animated in this week's DVD review column.

Sometimes I feel like an animation curmudgeon. Two summer animated hits have come to DVD and neither of them -- despite their box office success -- completely pleased me.

Both are solidly made films in their own right, but I can't help but feel there is a severe disconnect between the marketing departments of the studios who obviously yearn for a funny animated feature and the filmmakers who want to present a story that has heart and soul -- and not necessarily laughs.

There has been a ton of animated features released this year and I've been hard pressed to make my way to all of them. Some, such as "Space Chimps," "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Igor" were high concept movies that failed to connect to an audience. I can't imagine why "Fly Me to the Moon," in which three house flies stowaway on board Apollo 11 to make insect history, was a huge hit.

That's some sarcasm there folks.

My favorite moment in the film's trailer was when the flies' infants -- maggots -- were jumping up and down with glee over the accomplishment.

And it was in 3-D, which is just what I've been waiting for: animated maggots in three dimensions.

Yeech!

Other films seemed to be over-shadowed by the year's big hits -- so far -- "Kung Fu Panda" and "Wall-E." "Bolt" and "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" might also become big theatrical successes as well.

"Kung Fu Panda" and "Wall-E" are now both on DVD. I don't have a screener for "Wall-E," and I'm sure it's chock-a-block with extras, but I can say the television ad campaign is taking the same tack as the theatrical campaign. It is misrepresenting the film by emphasizing its comic moments instead of actually depicting the film for what it is a rather somber story about how mankind completely ruined the planet and itself as a species.

When I saw "Wall-E" this summer, a family behind me had to leave when their young daughter became increasingly distraught over the loneliness of the title character, a trash compacting robot with a cockroach as a companion. This is not a film for kids.

Is it a good movie? Why yes, "Wall-E" is a lavishly animated and wonderfully realized film, but it is scarcely a comedy and not necessarily suitable for young kids who will either be bored with the first act or scared by what they see.

"Wall-E" has a love story component to its plot as well as a heroic theme with the pampered humans revolting against the status quo, but it can't be called a comedy.

The same is mostly true with "Kung Fu Panda." It follows an age-old theme of the underdog rising to the occasion that served Buster Keaton so well in his classic silent comedies. Jack Black provides the voice for Po, a tubby panda whose father runs a noodle restaurant in a small Chinese town. His dad, a duck with a voice performed by the great character actor James Hong, hopes that "broth runs deep" in his son and that he will take over the noodle operation.

Po is a martial arts fan and when he is inexplicably chosen to be the "Dragon Warrior," the mightiest Kung Fu practitioner of them all, he is both scared and elated at the same time. He's especially scared because he must defend the town against an incredibly skilled warrior who has escaped from prison and aims to destroy the town.

It's a decent take on the standard story and I'm sure it will keep younger viewers interested.

Done in computer animation, the film has a nice look, although I preferred the 2-D approach taken in the opening sequence of the film. It was far more visually interesting.

The voice cast has some big names used only for marquee value (Seth Rogen, Angelina Jolie and Jackie Chan) who have very few lines. Only Dustin Hoffman as the teacher of the group actually gives a performance.

The character of Po was obviously done with Black in mind, so if you're not a Black fan, this film may not be for you.

Once again, though, a considerable amount of the footage is not comic and while that's fine, anyone who thinks this will be a laugh fest will be disappointed.

The DVD has considerable, but standard, extras with the obligatory footage of the voice cast gushing over the chance to be in this kind of movie. Ironically much of the footage shows them performing dialogue that never made it to the final cut.

There is already a sequel of sort to the film, a straight to DVD short subject titled "Secrets of the Furious Five," that is essentially an origin story for the other animal martial art characters. And while it's well done, the short is heavy on the preaching and short on the funny.

Here's my challenge to the animation community: make a funny feature. In fact, make a feature that doesn't use a standard kind of plot. Make one that doesn't look like a Pixar film or a Pixar wannabe. Make one that will keep adults and kids roaring with laughter. Hey, "The Simpsons: The Movie" managed to do all that. Don't you think other filmmakers could do that as well?


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