I saw KFP a couple of weeks ago, and as my earlier post said, I loved it. And here's why:
Granted, KFP isn't a terribly original plot, but the filmmakers made it work and work well. It's the classic hero's journey. You know, the reluctant hero fights prejudice and adversity to grow into the person he was destined to be. And because this story surrounds the world of hand to hand combat, it's easy to compare it to notables like Rocky and The Karate Kid. There is even the standard mentor character. But for every successful story in this genre, there are 50 failures. So why did this one work?
Panda works for me on several levels. First, it's funny. Really funny. The verbal humor was top notch, with great performances. And the physical gags were really, really great. The rigging on the characters made the squash & stretch work the best I've seen in CG animation since The Incredibles! And talk about timing! Man!
I have to admit that 10 minutes into the film, I pretty much knew where it was going plotwise. But there were enough surprises and entertaining performances to keep me interested all the way through.
Something that I think really really helped in the story was the dual arc of both Po and Shifu, his mentor. Usually, mentor characters don't change or grow to this degree, but they did a nice job of keeping the story from slipping into total cliché by adding this facet to his character.
It was also refreshing to see a Dreamworks film that didn't didn't rely on fart jokes for the lion's share of its comedy. (Don't get me wrong, I snicker at potty humor as much as anyone. But it does tend to wear after awhile.)
Any shortcomings? Yeah... I thought the secondary characters (Tiger, Mantis, Monkey, Crane & Serpent) were too much in the background, and not developed nearly enough. And what a waste of voice talent! None of them had enough dialog to warrant getting name actors. But even with that, I walked out of the theater wishing I had another ten bucks to see it again.
Today, I caught a matinée of Wall•E. I really, really, really wanted to love it. Instead, I just liked it.
Visually and technically, it is flawless. It was a pure visual treat. The character development was incredible! I mean, they took two nearly mute characters and revealed a lot of character depth with pantomime performances. I don't know anyone else who has come close to that kind of mastery. I even loved the very subtle Noah imagery. (Spoiler: Didn't Eve holding that little plant look live a dove & olive branch? Especially with the plot about the Earth's population waiting on an "ark" until they could return. Nice, yeah?)
So what went wrong?
I think it's this: The setting was epic and the story was small.
Okay, now for the lengthier explanation. Visually, as I've stated before, this film is full of expansive, huge, glorious imagery. The level of realism that Pixar has reached has greatly surpassed anything they have done before. However, the story (and I'll try not to include overt spoilers here), is a very small one. That's not a criticism in itself, I like small stories. This is an age-old plot of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Two principle characters. That's all. (plus a comic relief cockroach). None of the other characters intersect their story beyond being obstacles. There is no real interaction with them. And the obstacles that they do encounter never seem to reach the level expected in a film that looks this lush and epic.
By comparison, let's look at the epic film Gone With The Wind. The relationship between Scarlett & Rhett is set against the horrors of the American Civil War. Their drama includes a love triangle, numerous betrayals, the death of a child, etc. The stakes were high. And as soon as that opening scene hit the screen, the audience knows they are in for a big story because the visuals are big.
If Wall•E had the same production scale as Toy Story, my expectations would have told my instincts to expect a light story. And I would have been overwhelmed at the emotions that were exuded by this pair of robots. But the look of Wall•E telegraphed something on the scale of Laurence of Arabia. And the drama just didn't measure up 100%.
Recently, I was corresponding with Keith Lango about story, and I told him something I had learned: My 6 points of Storytelling vs Production Value.
Here are the first 3 points, because I thought they were the only ones relevant to this review:
1. Good Story comes first. A pretty film can be terribly boring.
2. Low budget films with good storytelling are a sure bet.
2a. An audience can sense a low budget (Napoleon Dynamite, Hoodwinked, etc) and will cut it some slack.
3. Audiences can tell a high budget film, therefore will hold the storytelling to an even higher standard.
It's like if you went to a really, really fancy restaurant with valet parking and waiters in tuxedos and a string quartet playing in the corner, you would expect cuisine that came off the set of Iron Chef. But if they brought you an Outback Steakhouse filet, you would be disappointed, no? I guess that's what I'm saying. I like Outback's filet, but I the surroundings made me expect more meat and spice.
By the looks of the weekend box office grosses, I might be in the minority on this.
So my advice is go see both films. Enjoy them. If you agree with me, fine. If not, even better because you'll have gotten more of your money's worth.