CD Review: Kung Fu Panda

Composers: Hans Zimmer / John Powell
Label: Dreamworks
Suggested Retail Price: $11.99
Grade: A

If the lesson of KUNG FU PANDA is not to judge a book by its cover, then don’t think that a cgi flick about a goofball bear (voiced by Jack Black no less) means that the music should be satisfied to go for the green belt. For what could have been another irritatingly high-concept toon has come across as one of the most satisfying martial arts flicks since KUNG FU HUSTLE, whether the characters doing the high-kicks here are humans or a zoo-worthy collection of critters.

No small amount of PANDA’s wallop comes from the terrifically fun score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell, two musical masters to be reckoned with. From Zimmer’s work on MADAGASCAR and GLADIATOR to Powell’s scores for SHREK and X-MEN UNITED, these composing Seifus have long been waxing on and off between scoring animation and action. Indeed, Powell had worked long and hard in Zimmer’s musical Dojo before proving himself as perhaps the most able of his students. Now teaming again for KUNG FU PANDA, Zimmer and Powell kick ass with a score that’s completely faithful to the conventions of “Kung Fu” music, their soundtrack at once saluting the ethnically Chinese approach of Tan Dun’s CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON and HERO while also reveling in the orchestral-beat sound they’ve created in such scores as KING ARTHUR and JUMPER.

Though Powell has done some of the coolest action scores of the last decade with the likes of THE BOURNE IDENTITY and MR. AND MRS. SMITH, it’s Zimmer who has more of the Asian spin going for him in such scores as THE LAST SAMURAI, whose lush grandiosity can definitely be heard in PANDA. Yet it’s almost impossible to tell who’s wielding the blade here, something that has served Zimmer well in his training camp where apprentices work en masse to become the next breakout composer. While that kind of training has sometimes yielded a homogenous sound, KUNG FU PANDA is a great example of how two talents can merge for a distinctively memorable, and kick-ass effect.

Zimmer and Powell have obviously done their homework, giving listeners everything they’d expect to hear in a “Kung Fu” score, from rapid-fire percussion to the Asian wind sounds of the Erhu to booming voices and the lilting string plucks of the Koto- all topped off with contempo symphonic writing. But while KUNG FU PANDA’s martial arts scenes rival many more serious live-action counterparts, this is a Dreamworks cartoon after all. And there’s a bright tone to much of the acrobatics here, the musical action going for a bump on the cgi noggin as opposed to a the decapitation of a flesh and blood neck. Yet as the score’s bright action tone lets you know nothing too terrible is at stake, it doesn’t mean that any less sweat is dripping from the players and computer programmers who are slamming the beats across. There’s a real sense of fun and exhilaration to what Zimmer and Powell are cooking, minus the kind of smarty-pants attitude that have often afflicted the scores of far less worthy toons of PANDA’s type.

Kung Fu scores tend to fail when they try to hit every punch and kick, and Zimmer and Powell are smart enough to go for a cumulative wallop instead of going for every action move. Their’s is a great kind of “busy” music that manages to hit everything anyway, but with a focus on theme and melody that are hallmarks of popcorn scoring masters. It’s a sweet, lush groove that makes this PANDA highly listenable, getting across the humor and emotion with a sound that’s anything but “cartoon” music. And if PANDA might have one too many training montages to get its character into fighting shape, Zimmer and Powell effortlessly plow through the exercises. When emotion hits, the duo play it with real heart. Then when a rock guitar jams in for the animal disciples fight against a twisted white tiger, or epic voices are unleashed for the big showdown between a master and his errant student, Zimmer and Powell give it the kind of wallop soundtrack fans haven’t heard since Yoda faced off against Darth Sidious. KUNG FU PANDA’s score is indeed that cool.

Topped off with Jack Black’s delightfully high-pitched rendition of the 70’s Kitsch classic “Kung Fu Fighting,” this is an album that earns its black belt in style. For by playing it as straight, and affectionately as they can, Hans Zimmer and John Powell have helped KUNG FU PANDA achieve the ultimate level- to make you think you’re watching humans instead of talking animals. KUNG FU PANDA gives its mantis, monkey, tigers and portly mammal the musical stuff of the legendary celluloid martial artists, even as the melodic majesty of their moves doesn’t forget to wink at the wonderful ludicrousness of it all.

Kick it HERE with the score for KUNG FU PANDA

1 Comment

  • October 11, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

    Good review. I enjoyed the soundtrack alot too. One thing though…the Erhu is a Chinese stringed instrument (not wind as you put). And it was most likely a yangqin or Pipa you thought was a Koto. Just saying :)

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