Why You Should…
If you like your animations scores rich, wild and entertaining, this particular product combining styles of contemporary and Eastern oriental harmony and energy to synthesize an admirable product.
Why You Shouldn’t…
If the duel between the action and comedic material proves an outwardly haphazard moulding of presentation, interrupting the fluency.
Release Date: 3rd July 2008
Composer(s): Hans Zimmer & John Powell
Recorded At/ By: The China National Symphony Orchestra, with assistance from The London Voices
Label: Interscope Records
Orchestrated By: John Ashton Thomas, Dave Metzger, Kevin Fliesch, John A. Coleman, Jane Antonia Cornish, Jake Parker, Germaine Franco.
Conducted By: Xincao Li, Gavin Greenway.
Produced By: Hans Zimmer and John Powell.
As much as animation films are orientated for younger audiences, the gravity of storytelling is infinitely superior in KUNG FU PANDA than most live-action films, regardless of their genre. Simply by harnessing the tools of satisfying narrative propulsion, and masterfully integrating it amongst a vibrant package of colour and sound, one could not fault the widespread fondness for Po the Panda, as unlikely a candidate he may be for the esteemed title of the seemingly revered Dragon Warrior. Using the anthropomorphic template of animals with human voices and characteristics, Kung Fu Panda focuses on a clumsy but well-intentioned panda, Po, and how his innocent, ardent admiration of a respected martial arts group, The Furious Five matures into him unwillingly becoming a prophesied force for good to defend the Valley of Peace from Master Shifu’s rogue protégée, Tai Lung- a snow leopard whose questionable vengeance stems from mislead ambition. Though holding plenty of cute, lively handling of the characters onscreen, the film didn’t resist in subtly inspiring children using themes of perseverance, determination and humility to paint its canvas. Indeed, the panda’s surprising relation to the audience becomes clear, as his progression from harmless enthusiast to self-respecting protector serves as the strength behind the tale. Marked as a hugely successful venture, the success of Kung Fu Panda led to a studio plan for 6 films, as well as a TV series based on the concept, and several video games to go with them.
As was the case, the collaboration between Dreamworks Animation and veteran composer Hans Zimmer would continue with this film. Zimmer arguably achieves his strongest result in animation since his glory days long ago, for The Lion King and The Prince Of Egypt. 2008 marked a workmanlike year for the composer, with his sequel scores The Dark Knight, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and a restrained, intelligent score for Frost and Nixon garnering mixed to mostly positive reception. Even more so was the inclusion of his close friend John Powell, once a former pupil of Zimmer who now holds several creditable scores to his own name, having a successful career too with a rather active year delving mostly into animation. The last time these two men had worked together was on The Road to El Dorado, and directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson approached them for their hyperactive, deep style of writing. The resulting collaboration is one that yields strong harmonic music, integrating Western orchestral tradition with Eastern culture and history, occasionally relying on contemporary instrumentation to infuse an energetic nature.
The lack of clear identity between the composers and the tracks garners mild annoyance, but one who has become accustomed to their styles shouldn’t find it too difficult to dissect. It is Zimmer handles the ancient, respectful broad strokes of the thematic material concerning the Dragon Warrior, while Powell chose to compose the livelier, quirky panda suite, his proficiency in cartoonish writing not having diminished one bit over the years. Most of the music ranges from frenetic martial arts cues to moments of wisdom, with commendable comic material flung from both angles. Ultimately, Zimmer’s handling of the deeper, epic martial arts themes and Powell’s zany, hyperactive percussive material is as identifiable as it gets, with three additional writers having been incorporated into the mix. That isn’t to say that the score isn’t an impressive one; the theme that Zimmer crafts for Oogway in “Oogway Ascends” is truly awe-inspiring in its meditative presentation, with the elegance of the erhu and orchestral majesty making the piece a subtle highlight. It eventually becomes Po’s secondary but dominant identity as he becomes the Dragon Warrior, intelligently signifying Oogway’s faith in the clumsy panda bearing fruit. Po’s more natural identity, however is in fact expressed fully in the penultimate cue, “Panda Po”, Powell using the cuter plucking and gigantic drums to craft this suite. Oogway’s identity is in fact woven at the start on flutes, before breaking its seemingly reflective attire by breaking into full-on funk mode in the opening cue, “Hero”, accompanying the scenes where Po fantasizes about leading the Furious Five into battle in a rather amusing sequence. The palette of instrumentation spans both cultures, using the mandolins to add a plucky vibe before doubling up with the bass guitar and frenetic drums, both composers unafraid to engage in the type of hip sublime mastery that contemporary veteran Lalo Schiffrin was known for. It receives a more peaceful treatment when Powell infuses tranquility and humble beginnings with pizzicato strings softly playing in the background, and the motif for the Valley of Peace is heard at the 2:50 mark- appropriately joyous in manner. The woodwind renditions of Oogway’s theme towards the end are beautiful. Powell extends his pluckiness into the second track, “Let the Tournament Begin”, with a swirl of heavy drums and vibrant fanfare accentuated by oriental tendencies in an otherwise groovy cue. The earlier portions of “Dragon Warrior is Among Us” impress in their choral input- the London Voices shine in their powerful impact upon the score, frequently impressing in short bursts throughout several cues.
Zimmer’s material for the villain, Tai Lung is first introduced in the fourth track, “Tai Lung Escapes”. It isn’t overtly menacing, but suits the intentions and time spent ruminating in prison. Deep vocal chanting opens the piece, with pulsating electronics and unsuspecting lower range strings occupying the bulk of the opening sections. The main identity for Lung is heard at the 1:30 mark with troubled brass- ideally, the cue is a patient demonstration of tension, and slowly, the percussive layers building as Tai Lung plots a rather startling escape. The acceleration of rhythm is a recurring aspect of this score, and particularly well-utilized too. Some poignant material on the cello is heard in “Peach Tree of Wisdom”, enunciating the necessary insecurity that the panda conveys (and ultimately serves as a scene or two for the audience to relate to). Another identity that serves integral in the score is the “Inner Peace” motif, heard first in the lengthy “Sacred Pool of Tears” at the 4:50 mark, with simple 5-note statements backed by curious twirls on the harp- by far the most impressive and complex cue overall in terms of expressing failure, determination, success, and awe as well as using the choir and percussion to powerfully vibrate the goosebumps of listeners when Po realizes Oogway’s longstanding association with Kung Fu as a whole towards the 1-minute mark. A lengthy suite, it comprises several of the underlying themes hidden in its 9-minute tapestry, and would be a frequent point of visit due to its harmonic fluidity and meter change.
Occasionally, the overbearing presence of the comedic cues doesn’t quite merge well with the action ones, causing an unexpected disrupt in the listening narrative. “Impersonating Shifu” and “Accu-Flashback” are examples as such; whilst there is nothing wrong with them as standalone cues, on score, the mixing of both the lighter and more demanding moments isn’t as efficient as it is on screen. “Training Po”, however, acts as a more tasteful alternative, the speedy nature of the writing achieving quirky results. Take this score with an adequate expectation, however, and be prepared to be rewarded with approximately 30-40 minutes’ worth of solid harmonic highlights and action statements encompassed by the characters.
Speaking of the Furious Five, they too receive a thematic identity most prevalent in “The Bridge”, with flashy brass flare. Perhaps one of the more muscular cues on the score, angry electric guitar and a wild brass rip of Tai Lung’s theme fight for control of the cue, and the drums do add a sense of movement. The Furious Five motif strikes at 2:21, emphasising their unified movement towards the enemy. The best action cue, however, is none other than “Shifu Faces Tai Lung”, as the red panda must painfully stop his former protégé from attaining the scroll. The drum kit is consistently utilised, but never overpowers the slam of the Taiko drums and as Lung’s theme is stated repeatedly, the more heroic, if not obscurely funky style represents Shifu and his furried movement. There is an admirable weight to the cue, and at 2:47, the choir burst through with a dramatic, godly conveyance of Oogway’s theme, now also representative of Shifu as the leader of the Furious Five and subsequently the Valley of Peace.
It is best to address “The Dragon Scroll”, “Po vs Tai Lung” and “Dragon Warrior Rises” as a suite better compiled together rather than the needless separation of the three. There is enough variation of pace and writing to address each scene perfectly, though the dominance of the comic aspects, do help spoil the flow. A particularly victorious Western-like march is heard at the 1-minute mark in “Po vs Tai Lung”, simply reprising the Valley of Peace motif for rousing pleasure. An even greater surprise is the final track, a more spirited and energetic version of “Kung Fu Fighting”, listenable in every regard due to vocal histrionics from Cee-Lo Green and lead voice actor Jack Black. It’s hard not to be satisfied after surveying this score, because with it comes both composers at some of their most creative moments, and many of the themes would be later reprised for the sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2, awarding more wonderful results. Zimmer would then work with Lorne Balfe for the third film in the franchise, Kung Fu Panda 3. Whilst a more cohesive progression over several tracks may have increased the quality of the score quite considerably, there is nothing that stops Zimmer and Powell’s work for the film from being awesomely entertaining.
(all music written by Zimmer and Powell)
1) Hero (4:41)
2) Let The Tournament Begin (1:58)
3) Dragon Warrior Is Among Us (2:56)
4) Tai Lung Escapes (7:05)
5) Peach Tree of Wisdom (1:53)
6) Accu-Flashback (4:04)
7) Impersonating Shifu (2:17)
8) Sacred Pool of Tears (9:50)
9) Training Po (1:28)
10) The Bridge (3:22)
11) Shifu Faces Tai Lung (4:46)
12) The Dragon Scroll (2:31)
13) Po vs Tai Lung (2:40)
14) Dragon Warrior Rises (3:22)
15) Panda Po (2:39)
16) Oogway Ascends (2:03)
17) Kung Fu Fighting (performed by Cee-Lo Green and Jack Black) (2:30)
Annie Award for Best Music in an Animated Feature Production (2008)