When “Kung Fu Panda” opens on June 6, it will be more than just the second most-hyped animated film of the summer (after Pixar’s “WALL-E,” which has already nestled its big-eyed robot inside the brains of America’s youth to the point where the actual movie will seem like a sequel). It will be the moment when Jack Black takes his life in his hands.
Black made his mark in movies in 2000’s “High Fidelity,” in which he played a record-store clerk so devoted to his own unapologetic rock-snob aesthetic that he would barely associate with anyone who didn’t like good bands. Since then, he’s done obvious comedies like “Shallow Hal,” family friendly but still edgy fare like “The School of Rock” and “Be Kind Rewind,” and some serious-actor work like 2007’s “Margot at the Wedding.” He’s even done a couple of cartoon voices in “Ice Age” and “Shark Tale” — but he wasn’t the lead in either.
When comic actors and stand-up comedians with big personalities venture into the realm of heading up a children’s animated movie, the results can quickly drain away whatever goodwill they have earned with adults, even as children are transformed into fans. Think back to Robin Williams in 1992’s “Aladdin.” If ever he had seemed whimsically entertaining, or if ever his shtick had not seemed tired, seeing his on-screen genie morph into Jack Nicholson and a game-show host and Ed Sullivan suddenly made it all depressingly literal. The next year brought “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and ever after, where he had once seemed like a raunchy, cocaine-fueled nut case, he now seemed like an aging, toothless kids’ show host.
Consider Mike Myers, who used to make comedies that went after the lowbrow, immature impulses of adults, like “Wayne’s World” and the Austin Powers movies. After he made “Shrek” in 2001, Myers started playing exclusively to the lowbrow, immature impulses of children. Jokes about long-haired basement-dwellers are one thing; returning over and over to the well of flatulent cartoon ogres takes you to a whole different place.
Eddie Murphy, also in “Shrek.” Adam Sandler in “Eight Crazy Nights.” David Spade in “The Emperor’s New Groove.” Jerry Seinfeld in “Bee Movie.” Frankly, headlining (or semi-headlining) a kids’ cartoon has rarely done a comedian’s career any favors, finances aside.
Shtick wears thin fastThis is so for a number of reasons. Almost no one holds up well doing funny voices for an hour and a half, which is certainly a large part of the “Aladdin” and “Shrek” problems. What sounds engagingly strange in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch wears horribly thin after an entire feature-length film.
This may be part of why one of the comedians to survive his animated incarnation with little damage to his reputation with adults is the marvelous Patton Oswalt, a wonderfully filthy stand-up who doesn’t seem to have suffered at all for playing Remy, the protagonist of “Ratatouille.” There isn’t much of a funny voice to that rat; if anything, Oswalt was dialing it down. Remy isn’t a straight man, exactly, but with a few exceptions, his delivery is relatively unaffected. Similarly, Steve Carell fared just fine in “Horton Hears a Who,” precisely because he wasn’t doing too much, so there wasn’t the opportunity for a parade of funny noises to grate.
This sort of more straightforward presentation avoids another problem animation can create, which is the sheer exhaustion of watching a high-energy comic cranked up to heaven for 90 minutes. Anything pitched at the level of Mike Myers comedy simply wears out adult audiences after a while.
Children, as anyone who’s ever met any of them is well aware, will watch the same thing over and over (and over) again, and on the 238th viewing of “Shrek,” an adult is likely to conclude that nothing associated with it — not donkeys, not Robin Hood, not Cameron Diaz — will ever enter the house again.
Bear-ly interested anymoreFatigue, in fact, is already a factor with “Kung Fu Panda.” There are theaters where stand-up cardboard pandas have been greeting moviegoers for months, and reports from the often higher-brow Cannes Film Festival were also full of photos of Black striking “hilarious” martial-arts poses while Angelina Jolie (whose voice also appears in the film) stood around trying to look interested. Only because “Sex and the City” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull” have been battling it for supremacy in the area of promotional hot air has “Kung Fu Panda” not worn out its welcome to the point of no return.
The advertising push includes another factor that tends to make us hate animated voices: the product tie-in. Not only do these films themselves surround us in theaters and on overplayed DVDs and in television commercials, but we all wind up awash in the cultural detritus they leave behind. Care for a “The Little Mermaid” Happy Meal? A “Cars”-themed pillowcase? The complete line of “Shrek” baby shampoos? If we do not become adequately exhausted by an animated character (and, by implication, the voice associated with it), we will certainly get sick of the part where every McDonald’s cup has his picture on it for a period of 10 agonizing weeks.
Furthermore, these 10 agonizing weeks will probably be followed with 10 more sometime in the future, because the only thing more certain than death and taxes is “Kung Fu Panda 2.” Perhaps it will go straight to video, but it will almost certainly show up somewhere. While Pixar has resisted the urge to sequelize most of its most popular films (“Toy Story” being the exception), “Kung Fu Panda” is a DreamWorks production, and DreamWorks brought you “Shrek.” And “Shrek 2,” and “Shrek The Third,” and “Shrek The Halls” and “Shrek Goes Fourth” (scheduled for 2010). Not tired yet? You will be.
Can Jack Black overcome the odds and retain some measure of his adult appeal after lending his voice to a fighting bear? Perhaps, but if he doesn’t, maybe there’s room for him in an upcoming “Mrs. Doubtfire” remake.