Kung Fu Panda

June 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: (voices of) Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman
Directed by: Mark Osborne (TV’s “SpongeBob Squarepants”) and John Stevenson (TV’s “Father of the Pride”)
Written by: Jonathan Aibel (TV’s “King of the Hill”) and Glenn Berger (TV’s “King of the Hill”)

Let’s not kid ourselves when it comes to recognizing the leader in animated feature films. Although Japanese anime like “Spirited Away,” has been a strong contender for the last few years, very few others can hold their own against Pixar Animation (DreamWorks Animation with their “Shrek” trilogy would beg to differ).

Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a category to honor animated features in 2002, Pixar has won three out of the seven years and been nominated a total of five times (“Monster Inc.” and “Cars” failed to win during their respected years against “Shrek” and “Happy Feet”).

Leave it up to DreamWorks to revisit the fat, loveable character-driven underdog story to return them to grace after not so great showings with “Bee Movie” and “Shrek the Third.” In “Kung Fu Panda,” the animation company proves that Pixar doesn’t have a monopoly on the industry (even though deep down they are all really scared about how groundbreaking “WALL-E” might be later this year).

“Kung Fu Panda” tells the story of a lazy panda bear named Po (Jack Black) who would rather learn the secrets of his favorite kung fu masters than sell noodles with his loosey-goosey father.

Po gets his chance when Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), a wise, old tortoise choose him to fulfill an ancient prophecy over a group of real animal warriors known as the Furious Five – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). This happens much to the chagrin of their kung fu master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) who doesn’t understand why Oogway has chosen Po to protect them.

With the evil snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) looking for revenge against the village, there is no time to waste training a fat, uncoordinated panda bear to fight a vengeful kung fu expert. Or is there?

The great work with “Kung Fu Panda” starts where it should with perfectly cast voice work by Black, Hoffman, and Kim. The humor ranges from flavorful jokes for adults and silly slapstick humor that doesn’t go overboard for kids. To top it off, animators pay special attention to the action and fighting sequences, which are high on energy and detail (the slow-motion animation is especially brilliant). “Kung Fu Panda” is a smart and funny homage to martial arts classics of the past and is the best animated feature so far this year and Po is definitely a character you can cheer for.

Manuel Almela – Kung Fu Panda

June 7, 2007 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

From a wild stallion to a family of gangster sharks to a pair of English sewer rats, animator Manuel Almela has given life to many different film characters in his 10-year career with DreamWorks Animation.

Originally from La Rioja, Spain, Almela started with DreamWorks in 1998 as the animator for the characters Hotep and Hoy in “The Prince of Egypt.” He went on to work on animated films including “The Road to El Dorado,” “Shark Tale” and “Flushed Away.”

In his most recent film, “Kung Fu Panda” – featuring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie – Almela used his animation skills to tell the story of Po, a lazy panda who is chosen to fulfill an ancient prophecy to save the valley where he lives.

During a phone interview with me, Almela talked about his career with DreamWorks, how animation has changed for the better over the last decade, and why he literally had to do backflips to understand how to animate the characters in “Kung Fu Panda.”

“Kung Fu Panda” is your seventh feature film with DreamWorks. What made this one special?

The production itself was fantastic. The theme of the movie is something that really touches your heart. You can really identify with the characters.

Is there a specific character in the film you were assigned to work on?

Before, when we were using traditional pixels, we would focus on one character. Nowadays, we get on the computer and they give us one scene and we get to work on all the characters in that scene.

Would you rather work like that or have your own character to focus on?

To be honest, I like the computer. Before, you had to build the character a model, which could be very time consuming. I still like to sketch and draw, but using the computer makes it easier.

It must be interesting to animate a panda doing kung fu moves. Did you have to study a kung fu expert to get those movements down correctly?

We not only watched a kung fu expert, but we had to practice kung fu. We went and learned kung fu moves every other week to figure out the best approach to the movie. The [characters] are animals, but they don’t behave like animals. For example, we decided at the beginning of production that the panda would have 5 percent animal behavior and 95 percent human behavior. [The character named] Crane has 80 percent animal behavior and 20 percent human behavior. We had to focus on the type of personality that each character had, otherwise, it would look fake.

Animation seems to be getting bigger and better each year. Is there room in this industry for 2-D animation?

It’s a far more expensive approach. Producing an animation movie is a very expensive and lengthy enterprise. I don’t think there is going to be any more 2-D movies. The only people that are still doing 2-D movies are the Japanese with their anime. They don’t focus on the animation but on the storyboards and the visual effects.

How do you grow as an animator when you’ve already secured a position with a company like DreamWorks?

I’m an artist. I am always doing something on my spare time. At DreamWorks, I am working with someone else’s characters and story. But, of course, I like to create my own stories and characters. I hope to create some of my own animated shorts someday.