Kung Fu Panda

Those of you reading this review along with my reviews for the concurrently-released The Happening and Bigger, Stronger, Faster* may think I'm either a pathetic name-dropper or Mr. Connected. Because in a rare instance, I saw all three of these films in the same week, and all three had friends of mine working on them. In this case, I was excited to see my old CalArts classmate Mark Osborne finally get a shot at directing a feature-length animated film.

As a filmmaker, Mark's had his ups and downs over the years, and Kung Fu Panda is his chance to finally prove to the world what he's capable of. (Of course I can't neglect the contributions of veteran co-director John Stevenson.) And he is frankly the only reason I saw this film. Spoiled by the work of Pixar's crack story team, I've had little interest in the countless Dreamworks animated features that rely on celebrity vocal talents and anthropomorphized animals while letting us down with drab scripts.

Kung Fu Panda's own screenplay, credited to no less than four writers, is a simple, harmless affair. It lacks the twists and turns of Pixar's famously fast-paced storylines, and for that the film doesn't quite achieve greatness. But the acting – meaning the character animation, not the vocal work – is wonderful. The subtlety in the characters' expressions, and the detail and whimsy of the Hong Kong-inspired fight scenes, are absolutely top-notch. The backgrounds are breathtaking as well, especially on the big screen.

I wasn't very impressed with the character design, and vocally the film is very much the Jack Black Show (which you may love or hate). The voice work of Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, and Seth Rogen adds nothing. I would have liked to have heard more Asian actors in this film, such as the very welcome James Hong and Randall Duk Kim.

But I'm getting nitpicky. This is a cute film with some gorgeous visuals, I chuckled a few times, and mostly I hope its success will let Mark make films that are less studio-driven and more personal.