McDull Kung Fu Kindergarten -- Film Review

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In animated feature "McDull Kung Fu Kindergarten," Hong Kong's most iconic cartoon porker goes to learn martial arts at Wudang, birthplace of Taichi, to prove that pigs can fly-kick at a national championship. Sounds like "Kung Fu Panda"? It's anything but.

Unlike past series, "Kindergarten" has a coherent storyline followed through to its wistful end, making it accessible even to non-Cantonese speaking Chinese. The technical quality is a few notches above previous editions. It marks a breakthrough in the series for setting the main story in China, rather than Hong Kong's colorful old quarter Tai Kok Tsui, scored tremendous success on the mainland for a non-blockbuster.

"Kindergarten" is not very exportable internationally. It is not made for kids, lacking American style eye-popping action. From an educational point of view, it offers no inspirational bromide like "Panda's" message of "believe in yourself." Even adults are baffled by the untranslatable Hong Kong references, esoteric Cantonese word quips and in-jokes from the series' three earlier films and cartoons co-created by director-writer Brian Tse and illustrator Alice Mak.

But for the series' largely local fan base, the above elements, and the touching mother-son relationship at the heart of the entire opus, are precisely what bring them back to the cinema.

In a move that echoes shift of productivity from Hong Kong to China, McDull's (Kwok Kwan-yin) mom Mrs. Mak (Sandra Ng) goes to China to seek her fortune, and leaves her son to attend summer camp on Mount Wudang. Here, the traditional dramatic arc of martial arts coming-of-age stories is subverted. Despite his master's (Anthony Wong) modernized mantras and the secret counsel of a panda friend, McDull learns nothing.

The charming 3D imaging of Hong Kong architecture in previous editions "My Life as McDull" and "Prince de la Bun" are only recalled in the early scenes. In their stead are beautiful but more sterile images of China's famous scenery and landmarks, animated with the same dynamic swooping movement. One senses the desire to show off the labor intensive fruits of the huge mainland CG team, but they are too long and non-narrative, and don't really compliment Alice Mak's sweetly childlike hand-drawn figures.

The film's philosophy that it's okay to be a clueless loser is reinforced by a parallel story of McDull's 18th generation ancestor McFat, a crack Daedalus of useless inventions, such as cash withdrawal cards before there were ATMs, electric gadgets before electricity. The episode is narrated as irreverent send-up of historical biopics and Confucius' writing style.

The Cantonese ditties of Wan Kwong and wisecrack renditions of the Northern Chinese "Flower Drum Song" give the music a nostalgic soul.

Pusan International Film Festival -- Special programs in focus: Ani-Asia!

Sales: Golden Network Asia Ltd.
Presented by Bliss Pictures Ltd, Famous Now Investment Ltd, Sega Corp.
Production: Famous Now Investments Ltd.
Cast: Kwok Kwan-yin, Sandra Ng, Anthony Wong, Chim Sui-man, the Pancakes
Director-screenwriter-producer: Brian Tse
Art director: Alice Mak
3D Animation director: Kwai Bun
Music: Steve Ho, the Pancakes
No rating, 77 minutes