Technically, doesn't a "preview" still count as a "view"? (Pt. III - The Conclusion)

[Continued from yesterday... really...]

So, how would it feel to my unrelaxed and reluctant self seeing the upcoming, brand-new, animated Dreamworks comedy Kung-Fu Panda five months before its release?

Animated films are done on a much longer though tighter schedule, and it is rare for extraneous scenes to get beyond the storyboard or animatix stage (unless they are purposefully done that way to cash in on the current vogue for Easter eggs and DVD bonus features). Like most films, and especially films with large doses of special effects, they are tweaked practically up until the moment of release, so it left me wondering just what form this film would be in for this January preview. How complete would this film be? Surely, the voicework -- usually the first completed element following the script -- would be intact, but how advanced would the animation be at what felt to me to be a relatively late date? Would I finally see an advance screening which truly felt in a full manner to be an advance screening?

Happily, especially for this animation nut, the answer turned out to be a resounding YES! While "Vicki" told us that 70 percent of the animation was completed, and detailed the various stages of the artwork that we would be seeing -- storyboards, animatix, roughs and completed scenes -- I never imagined how completely engrossing the experience would be, getting to see a major animated film in such an incomplete form. I wished partway though the show that even more of the film were incomplete, as I was so fascinated to see the process writ large on a big screen. Certain scenes would begin with an already completed establishing shot and a few seconds of action, then would drop into animatix form and then devolve even further into mere storyboards (my favorite part of the process), the voices of the actors all the while carrying the story along. It often felt like I was drifting through a storybook, and my imagination were triggering certain images to come to life more fully than others, though all the while I was still moving unimpeded through the story itself.

And the story itself? No great shakes, but true to the mythic and twisted tradition of most live-action martial arts epics, somewhat tied initially to a historical tradition, but more than willing to jet off into wild flights of fancy, if only to make the action larger and more frenzied than that which preceded it. If it plays off stereotyped caricatures of martial arts forms, it does so lovingly, and even twists many of them to hilarious effect. My chief vocal concern -- that of Jack Black as the lead panda, Po -- was left shattered on the floor of the theatre, so perfectly was he married to the material and to the character. There is no one that is a bigger Black fanatic -- ask any of my friends, who have been tormented with repeated viewings of Tenacious D's late HBO show for numerous years -- but I readily admit to a great reluctance on my part regarding this film, especially after seeing the largely unfunny "silence your cell phones" teaser that is currently running in theatres (why do they have Po pointing to a part of the theatre where NO ONE EVER SITS??!!)

The action grows ever larger throughout the film, until it explodes into a glorious climax that I am sure will be astounding in its completed form. At no point does Po become an all-encompassing master of all martial arts forms, where I feared he would become this unbeatable force in every situation; instead, his actions flow smoothly off the natural movements of his character, that of a fat, lazy panda, and much of his fighting style owes much to the comical styles of Hong Kong stars like Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung -- less forceful violence than accidental defense methods, where many of their moves still end up giving them lumps in a slapstick manner. When he does attain revelation and assume the style of a master, it feels like he has earned it. (Is this a spoiler? What? Are you nine years old? Did you expect him NOT to become a master?) A bonus is the relationship between Po and his dad, voiced to hilarious effect by David Lo-Pan himself, James Hong. (Perfect, perfect casting, this...) It is a delightfully played tandem, and this I will not spoil at all, except to say that it is wonderful how it is resolved so ambiguously.

The other voices? A mixed lot. Ian McShane is good as the rival, jealous snow leopard master, but for the second time this year (The Golden Compass), I thought Malcolm McDowell was doing the honors instead. Jackie Chan, Lucy Lui and Angelina Jolie are largely wasted in roles that should have been much bigger (Jolie might be miscast, as there is an attempt to give her character an emotional complexity that never carries itself off) -- my chief complaint on the opinion sheet was that the supporting roles should have been more defined -- but David Cross as Master Crane is afforded some amusing room to move about the dojo, though this might be because he was able to bring comic timing to his role in a way that the others weren't, thus the flexibility in screen time. Dustin Hoffman, though, is hands-down terrific as Po's reluctant master Shifu, though I am still not sure what the hell type of animal he was. Seth Rogen, though... was he even in there? And why didn't they switch his voice with Michael Clarke Duncan, so that for once Duncan wasn't voicing a big, lumbering beast, but a small, surprisingly adept insect instead? Apparently, you can get typecast even in animation. (Ask Patrick Warburton...)

Ultimately, the feeling left to me is that I will not hesitate to see this in its completed form upon its eventual release on June 6th. I am certain that the great majority of my friends will find enjoyment in it -- never necessarily a sign that I also did, but it should ring true this once -- and even seeing it in so rough a form, I was left with a sense of wanting even more. The final battle sequences were quite engaging, and the main thing that I feared outside of Black meeting up with the material -- a surge of anachronistic references and humor -- did not come to the fore here. Such use is prevalent and increasingly annoying in the Shrek series from the same producers, and it was pleasant that it was tamped down to a large degree here. This fear also rose in me regarding the music, as I was worried that this film would simply be Jack Black grunting and groaning over the annoyingly overused strains of Kung Fu Fighting (need proof? check that annoying teaser again...) or other modern music; thankfully, there was only a score to be heard, though it may not have been the actual score (Jen thought it sounded awfully close to the music from Mulan).

I got to see an advance that was truly an advance. I was able to see an upcoming animated film in a very rough, unfinished form. And I came out of the advance experience actually enjoying a film, and wanting much more from my viewing, even as I left the theatre with a smile on my face. I had been proven wrong in more ways than one, and I loved the feeling, though that may have been due to the total experience.

As long as they don't sneak Kung Fu Fighting back in, I should be happy this summer.


Ah, but would your opinion change if the soundtrack were to feature Dread Zeppelin's version of Kung Fu Fighting? I could see that as appropriate to a pudgy Jack Black Panda fight scene.

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