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Kung Fu Panda isn’t the greatest animated movie in the history of animated movies, but in terms of presentation quality it’s certainly one of the more awesome Blu-ray discs currently on the market.

Pure Awesomeness

If you want the best picture quality and don't mind not getting the short sequel, choose Blu-Ray
If you want the best picture quality and don’t mind not getting the short sequel, choose Blu-Ray

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.

Blu-ray Extras

First of all, the disc starts with the forced playback of two movie trailers. (The standard DVD version does the same – with three trailers.) That’s annoying the first time, let alone on repeated playback. Next time, let’s go right to the movie or the menu, OK?

Second, the fact that Secrets of the Furious Five was not released on Blu-ray – and not even made available via BD-Live – is a complete crock pot of marketing and technical negligence. There are some supplemental features on this disc that are absurdly misguided – the Video Jukebox is at the top of that list – so if “space” was an issue, then more informed decisions should’ve been made.

That said, it is quite impressive that this Blu-ray disc offers up three in-feature running tracks, two of which are exclusive to this release.

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, all presented on Blu-ray in high-def, that could best be categorized as film-related, educational, games, vanilla marketing, or pure junk.

In the category of “film-related” are:

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.

The “educational” supplements are:

Conservation Earth is a 2-minute “Save the Panda” mini-documentary hosted by Jack Black. Check it out. Why not? It’s only two minutes and pretty informative.

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.
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.

Do You Kung Fu? Not that this is something to be taken too seriously, but this feature manages to squeak into the “educational” category rather than vanilla marketing. 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. As the pre-demonstration disclaimer says, be careful out there.

The “games” supplements are:

Dragon Warrior Training Academy, which includes five challenges: Seven Talon Rings, Jade Tortoise, Gator Gauntlet, Swinging Claws, and Field of Flames. The games, played with the Blu-ray remote, are more tedious than fun, especially considering how simple the play mechanics are. (Here’s another jab: Secrets of the Furious Five was left off the release in favor of this?)

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

Learn to Draw isn’t exactly a “game,” but it’s not particularly educational, either. It’s also borderline “vanilla marketing.” Regardless of how it might be categorized, go here to “learn” how to draw Po or any one of the Furious Five. “Learn” is included in quotes because 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.

In the category of “vanilla marketing” are:

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.

Learn the Panda Dance is pure vanilla pain. 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.

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.

Finally, in the category of “pure junk” is:

The Dreamworks Video Jukebox. It’s more than a little annoying that one of the Blu-ray supplements is merely a collection of music video clips from other Dreamworks Animation releases – most of which are not available on Blu-ray. It’s more of a commercial than a genuine value-add supplement.

Are you ready for one more jab? Blu-ray consumers would’ve been much better served if Secrets of the Furious Five was included instead.

Blu-ray Exclusives

As companion pieces to the Filmmakers’ Commentary, there are two additional tracks exclusive to the Blu-ray release.

The Animators’ Corner is an excellent track using Profile 2.0’s picture-in-picture capability. Some of the material overlaps with the standard filmmakers’ commentary, but this time the material with the directing duo is displayed onscreen, showing them making their comments as they watch the movie. But the track is also interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage of Black, Hoffman, and other cast members performing their roles in sync with the movie as well as other behind-the-scenes footage and early-stage animation. Unlike the Beowulf picture-in-picture track, Angelina Jolie does make an appearance in the behind-the-scenes footage.

The third option is a Trivia Track. While there’s quite a bit more repetition from the other two tracks and other supplements, there are still some good bits to be found here, including call-outs of a few cast ad libs and loads of minutiae, including the number of tiles in one set, the number of petals in another scene, and a wee smidge about the Chinese language.

At the moment, there are two downloadable items available via BD-Live. Once again, Secrets of the Furious Five is not one of them.

Po Around the World is a goofy, not entirely worthwhile feature that affords viewers the opportunity to watch the climactic confrontation between Po and Tai Lung, the scene in which Po says “skadoosh,” in a dozen different languages. As it turns out, “skadoosh” isn’t exactly universal and on occasion it requires a bit of translation (in Mandarin, for example).

A Day in the Life: A Shaolin Monk in Training is quite a pleasant surprise. While it’s not clear when this was filmed and it’s presented in standard definition, it’s an excellent 11-minute short that features some incredible footage of training exercises and magnificent Chinese scenery. This featurette follows a class of 10-year-olds in training and incorporates some good background information on the Shaolin monks. It’s definitely worth a look.

Picture and Sound

The picture quality is immaculate and faithfully presents the pixilated wonder that is Kung Fu Panda in glorious 1080p.

Kung Fu Panda also boasts one of the richest 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtracks on the market; it offers superlative sound design, terrific bass, and loads of crisp, crisp texture throughout.

Also available are French, Spanish, and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks.

Optional subtitles are available in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

How to Use This Disc

Imbibe the awesomeness that is Jack Black as Po in Kung Fu Panda then check out the Animators’ Corner track, at least for a portion of the movie in order to get a flavor of the feature. If you’re interested in some enlightenment, also take a gander at the “Save the Pandas,” Chinese Zodiac, and chopsticks pieces.