" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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Kung Fu Panda isn’t the greatest animated movie in the history of animated movies and its direct-to-DVD sequel is merely a short extension of the tale, but both are amiable romps that serve up worthwhile messages for the cubs.

Pure Awesomeness

If you want the short sequel, get the DVD
If you want the short sequel, get the DVD

It’s a tale as old as time. Chubby panda yearns for greatness, but the broth of the family noodle business runs deep in his veins and instead of being a master of the KAPPOW! he’s a mere grasshopper in the ways of the wok.

Well, all of that changes when Oogway (Randall Duk Kim, The Matrix Reloaded), a really old, pokey turtle, declares that it is time to select the Dragon Warrior, the legendary being of ultimate kung fu coolness.

It’s assumed one of the Furious Five will assume this awesome mantle (and really cool title). Come on, it’s a no-brainer when your choices are Tigress (Angelina Jolie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), a stealthy tiger; Monkey (Jackie Chan, Shanghai Knights), an, um, agile monkey; Viper (Lucy Liu, Shanghai Noon), yeah, a swift viper; Mantis (Seth Rogen, The Spiderwick Chronicles), a praying mantis who spends more time kicking butt than praying; and Crane (David Cross, Alvin and the Chipmunks), a crane who stands up to injustice.

OK. So these mavens of martial arts spend more time meditating and practicing their arts than thinking up awesome names for themselves. The point is, they’re cool, man! They kick it even when they’re kickin’ it.

Nobody in the village wants to witness this awesome, once-in-a-lifetime event more than Po (Jack Black, School of Rock), the poor panda with big dreams. If Po had a last name in order to be able to have a middle name, his middle name would be “Tenacity.” There’s no quit in this kid when he puts his mind to it and when he finally makes it into the Dragon Warrior ceremony, he does so with such unintended panache, he is declared the Dragon Warrior.

Oops.

Level Zero

Considering Kung Fu Panda is from Dreamworks, the house behind the Shrek flicks among many others, it’s surprising that this story of a chubby, heavy-eating panda includes virtually no toilet humor. It’s too busy telling its earnest, well-meaning story to be distracted by such things.

Ultimately, the message is that nothing is impossible. At first, of course, that would seem to not be the case when the challenge facing Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, Rainman), the mousey kung fu master, is to turn the plump panda into an agile, rough-and-tumble kung fu king.

If time was on Shifu’s side, maybe it wouldn’t be such a big challenge, but it’s not. Tai Lung (Ian McShane, Shrek the Third), an evil, angry tiger, has escaped the deep, dark recesses of his prison and wants to wreak vengeance on the village.

Kung Fu Panda barrels through the standard story with a self-assured ease, confident in its characters, cast, and computer-generated animation. The best part is that the key messages, about believing in yourself and following your dreams, escape the schmaltzy muckety-muck that can so easily plague this kind of material. Maybe it helps that it’s all presented in a fairly calm, zen-like manner that asserts the adage that there is no such thing as an accident. Yes, everything happens for a reason.

It helps when your lead character is played by Jack Black. He owns the role of Po and the movie is loaded with “Black humor.” He plays off his “awesomeness” riffs from School of Rock and Tenacious D, imbuing Po with the same urgent sense of all-important fandom that can be found in his rock-heavy roles dating back to High Fidelity. When Po meets the Furious Five, he immediately comments on how they’re so much bigger than their action figures (except Mantis, of course).

But that giddy fan humor is tempered by Po’s own challenge to be something more and accomplish something beyond the confines of the noodle bar. And Black is more than up to the challenge to stretch out beyond his own stable of jokes and he makes Po a truly likable cartoon star, one worth cheering for.

Secrets of the Furious Five

For those who choose to take on the challenge (and the minimal extra price point), Kung Fu Panda is packaged with a second disc featuring a direct-to-DVD mini-sequel entitled Secrets of the Furious Five. The 24-minute short plays off the same storytelling style of the theatrical release; the scenes taking place in the present use the eye-popping CGI style (albeit with a slightly less-detailed approach) and the flashbacks are presented in a 2D anime style.

Overall, it’s a decent addition, although the marketing of this side project hardly makes it clear it’s merely a short sequel as opposed to a feature-length sequel.

The story surrounds Po (once again voiced by Jack Black) and his attempt to teach an introduction to kung fu class to a bunch of young bunnies after Shifu (Dustin Hoffman in a vocal cameo) leaves Po in the lurch.

As the Dragon Warrior, Po gets a brief moment of props from the kids but they’re more interested in learning all about butt kicking.

And therein is the lesson: Kung fu isn’t entirely about butt kicking. It’s also about excellence of self.
Po then goes on to explain each member of the Furious Five and how they became kung fu masters.

Patience, courage, confidence, discipline, and compassion all become elements of self-mastery. It’s a collection of nice lessons, neatly presented.

DVD Extras

It’d be great to hear how the decisions were made to market Kung Fu Panda on home video. The extras are all over the place and haphazardly packaged. It’s as if those involved lost track of what all they had and where they were putting it.

The first disc in the conspicuously-bundled two-disc set, with each disc in a separate case, features Kung Fu Panda and a trailer for Secrets of the Furious Five (no doubt for those who choose to purchase only the single disc; it’s a kinda “gotcha,” since the mini-sequel is only available as a bundled item with the original theatrical movie).

The disc also includes a section of “printables” available via DVD-ROM. There are Embroidery Templates, Cootie Catchers, Lunchbox Notes, Takeout Kits, Temporary Tattoos, Popup Cards, Stick Puppets, Tangram Puzzle, Pagoda Diorama, Fabric Dolls, Lanterns, Shrinkable Backpack Tags, 3D Characters, and 5 Pages of Fun (an activity book buffered with “inspirational ideas”).

Also available are “Land of the Panda” printables, which essentially pair up with the DVD featurettes Do You Kung Fu?, Inside the Chinese Zodiac, How to Use Chopsticks, and What Fighting Style Are You?

Ah, but those featurettes (except for the one on chopsticks) are included on the Secrets of the Furious Five disc. Further muddying the waters of marketing convolution, those same printables are also available on that sequel disc.

The fact that Secrets of the Furious Five itself is a DVD exclusive and not available on Blu-ray is a separate tirade that can be found on the Blu-ray review.

Kung Fu Panda Disc Extras

The Filmmakers’ Commentary, with directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, is quite enlightening, particularly given that this is, after all, a PG-rated animated movie. The two directors explain quite a bit about the thought processes as the story evolved and the plot considerations developed. They keep going right on through the end credits, which itself turns into quite a discussion about the presentation of the end credits.

There are also a collection of featurettes and other materials that range from very good to junky.

Meet the Cast is a standard 13-minute promotional fluff piece featuring all of the principal cast members.

Pushing the Boundaries is a 7-minute look at the pixilated side of things and the computer magic involved (not-so-inconspicuously sponsored by the major computer company used in this production).

One day there’ll be a computer-animated movie in which they’ll finally admit they didn’t break any new ground, they just had fun. This isn’t it. Sure, they had fun. But they’re also quick to point out many-a-time the different groundbreaking aspects of the production.

Sound Design is a fairly interesting 4-minute short that interviews sound designer Ethan Van Der Ryn and proves out the notion that some things never change. Watching the sound designers at work on this mega-budget CGI feature still looks a lot like an watching the staging of an old-school radio show.

Mr. Ping’s Noodle House is more of a humorous piece, but it’s cool. Hosted by Alton Brown, of Iron Chef America, this is sort of a 5-minute lesson in making noodles from Mr. Yip at Mr. Chow’s in Beverly Hills (this short’s title is a misnomer; they had to go to Mr. Chow’s since it’s too hard to get into Mr. Ping’s place now that Kung Fu Panda’s turned into a global phenomenon). The culinary trick on display here is something to witness.

How to Use Chopsticks is a sensible little extra that covers the title topic and includes some lessons in chopstick manners.

Kung Fu Fighting music video by Cee-Lo. Hmmm. Tres bland. Jack Black is shown making some kung fu poses. It would’ve been better if he took the lead and sang the darn song.

Help Save the Pandas: Conservation International is a 2-minute mini-documentary about the plight of the pandas hosted by Jack Black. Check it out. Why not? It’s only two minutes and pretty informative.

Dragon Warrior Training Academy is a set of games that can be played on the TV and includes five challenges: Seven Talon Rings, Jade Tortoise, Gator Gauntlet, Swinging Claws, and Field of Flames. The games, played with the DVD remote, are more tedious than fun, especially considering how simple the play mechanics are.

On the junky side, the Dreamworks Video Jukebox is merely a collection of music video clips from other Dreamworks Animation releases. It’s more of a commercial than a genuine value-add supplement.

Secrets of the Furious Five Disc Extras

Learn to Draw attempts to teach viewers how to draw Po or any one of the Furious Five. If your drawings are anywhere near as good as the originals after following the kooky directions, pack your bags and move to Hollywood. It’s worth noting that Po gets the deluxe, 8-minute treatment, with a good explanation from one of the animators. The other characters don’t fare nearly as well; they get generic instruction like “draw a long line” or “draw a few curvy lines,” or add “a curvy shape on top of the curvy line,” or “draw an elongated triangle.” OK. Thanks.

Dumpling Shuffle is the classic shell game done with dumplings. Simple but fun – at least once or twice.

Learn the Panda Dance is somewhat painful. This is a 4 1/2- minute lesson in how to do the dance in the music video, or some kind of variation thereof. Wanna put yourself on YouTube doing some kung fu dancing? Learn how here, baby.

Do You Kung Fu? Follow these step-by-step instructions to master the art of kung fu. Select from one of the styles of the Furious Five or the newest rage, Panda style. This feature also covers the basics, namely, the kung fu bow and the beginning position. This segment can’t be taken too seriously but, as the pre-demonstration disclaimer says, be careful out there.

Inside the Chinese Zodiac lets you ask that age-old question, “Hey, baby, what’s your sign?” Select your birth year and learn about your awesome self right here.

Animals of Kung Fu Panda is a 6-minute lesson in the various styles of kung fu fighting (they’re named after and based on animals). It’s a surprisingly decent and credible explanation of the subject matter.

What Fighting Style Are You? is a quiz geared to the very young that, upon completion, tells you which Kung Fu Panda animal you are. Unfortunately, “none of the above” is never an option, so that can certainly adversely impact the final designation. And who knows what the heck kind of algorithm was used in “calculating” the style.

DVD Exclusives

Of course, at the top of this list is Secrets of the Furious Five which, as previously noted, is a decent, albeit short, tag-along sequel created exclusively for home video.

The DVDs also include a “Pandamonium Activity Kit” not found on the Blu-ray release.

Both discs include the aforementioned collection of “printables.”

The Secrets of the Furious Five disc also has a little something called the “Kung Fu Panda Sound Machine.” This one allows players to remix 10 movie clips using 17 sound snippets, 46-or-so sound effects, and seven characters. It’s fairly neat but also a little off the wall.

The sequel disc also shamelessly includes game demos for Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar 2. File that under “commercial,” folks. Those aren’t “supplemental materials.”

Picture and Sound

The picture quality on Kung Fu Panda, in widescreen 2.35:1 and 16:9 enhanced, seems a little soft, particularly in comparison to the immaculate nature of the Blu-ray presentation.

As for Secrets of the Furious Five, the 1.78:1 image is quite good and serves the direct-to-video material very well.

Both Kung Fu Panda and Secrets of the Furious Five offer strong English 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks that serve up excellent audio on the standard DVD format.

Both titles also provide an English 2.0 Dolby Digital version and optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Kung Fu Panda includes Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks.

How to Use This Disc

Imbibe the awesomeness that is Jack Black as Po in Kung Fu Panda then check out Secrets of the Furious Five. If you’re interested in some enlightenment, also take a gander at the “Save the Pandas,” Chinese Zodiac, and chopsticks pieces.