DVD 11/11/08: Kung Fu Panda/Secrets of the Furious Five, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Mister Foe, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Opium: Diary of a Madwoman

Kung Fu Panda (PG, 2008, Dreamworks)

The easiest way to break down the “Kung Fu Panda” mythology is to use a “Star Wars” analogy. There’s Po — a clumsy, rotund panda whose date with destiny is not unlike that of one Luke Skywalker. His reluctant master, Master Shifu (think Obi-Wan Kenobi), must train him to face off against a former protégé whose lust for power turned him to, let’s say, the dark side. And so on. None of this is to sell “Panda” short or dismiss it as derivative. To the contrary, “Panda’s” skeletal similarities to something on the level of “Star Wars” underscores just how ambitious it is compared to your typical anthropomorphic animated film. It colors in that outline with a lore all its own, and once the details of that betrayal are laid out, you might be startled to find out just how drawn into the story you’ve become. It doesn’t hurt that Po is an obscenely likeable main character or that “Panda” earns its laughs through surprising levels of wit. If there’s a downside here, it’s that “Panda” is potentially a victim of its own spectacle: The fight scenes that break out are unbelievably cool and clever in funny and exciting ways, but they may be too much for the film’s supposed audience. Keep that in mind if you’re watching this with young children.
Extras: Filmmaker commentary, three behind-the-scenes features, chopsticks how-to, noodles feature, wild pandas PSA, music video, DVD game, Dreamworks Animation video jukebox.
— “Secrets of the Furious Five” (NR, 2008, Dreamworks): Remember that lore business discussed above? This semi-sequel companion DVD, bundled with select “Panda” DVDs, delves further into the ways and methods of Po’s dojomates, who play a significant role in his film. At 24 minutes long, the feature is on the shorter side, but if you take it for what it really is — a DVD extra that comes in its own case and with its own extras — it’s a cool treat and a nice bridge toward what inevitably will be a full-fledged “Panda” sequel. Extras: Drawing/dancing/Kung-Fu how-tos, Chinese Zodiac feature, DVD game, DVD-ROM content (printables, sound machine, game demos).

Hellboy II: The Golden Army: 3-Disc Special Edition
Like most young children, little Hellboy (Montse Ribé as the kid version, Ron Perlman as the full-grown version) loved hearing a bedtime story before trotting off to sleep. The difference, in this case, is that the mythical army from those bedtime stories not only is real, but led by a prince (Luke Goss) determined to return control of the planet to his people. Sounds like the plot of just about every fantasy film released in the last 10 years, and in several basic respects, it plays out as such. But if you saw the original “Hellboy,” you already know what sets “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” apart: It’s genuinely funny, smartly written, rooted equally in its universe and ours, and fronted by one of filmdom’s more charismatic superheroes (with a cast of brilliant sidekicks to match). On top of bringing all that good stuff over, “Army” also brings with it a new cast of wonderfully designed creatures and special effects that actually enhance rather than drag down the film’s spirited mood. If you’ve avoided “Hellboy” for wariness of its potential blandness and/or excess derivation, great news: Should you give the series a chance, you’re now in for two extremely pleasant surprises instead of just one. Selma Blair,     Anna Walton, Doug Jones, James Dodd, Jeffrey Tambor, John Alexander and John Hurt, among others, also star.

Mister Foe (R, 2008, Magnolia)
Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell) is a bit touched by history — slightly obsessed with his mother’s passing, completely convinced his father’s (Ciarán Hinds) new love (Claire Forlani) had something to do with it, and so socially damaged that he spies on people from afar rather than interact with them. So you can imagine, maybe, how much trouble is possible when Hallam, upon setting out on his own, meets a woman (Sophia Myles) who looks uncannily like his mother. The collision of coincidence and character flaws gives rise to all sorts of cute and trite possibilities — bait that “Mister Foe,” happily, never takes. Rather, it pulls off the kid gloves and lets its lead character twist uncomfortably in his own coming-of-age story — so much so, you may not even like the guy regardless of what his story does for you. That is entirely to the film’s credit, by the way: This is a genre that’s rife with imitation, character coddling and soft landings, and “Foe” takes no such handouts. You might be uncomfortable rooting Hallam on, but that beats feeling cheated by where his story ends up. Jamie Sives, Ewen Bremner and Maurice Roëves also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars: 2-Disc Special Edition (PG, 2008, Warner Home Video)
The hate was strong with this one when it hit theaters this summer, but was it justified? “The Clone Wars” is a “Star Wars” movie, which typically implies event-level status, but it really exists as a 90-minute commercial for the now-airing Cartoon Network show of the same name. Given the tone of that show — action-centric but geared toward kids and families more than anyone who dressed up for the “Phantom Menace” premiere nine years ago — there’s really nothing here that should offend those long-time fans, who must look at this as the final reminder that “Star Wars” isn’t courting them anymore. With all that said, “TCW” isn’t all that bad when taken on its own merits. The action is choreographically pedestrian but visually dazzling, the stylish art direction is a bold step outside the norm, and the writing certainly has more of a pulse than the recent trilogy of films ever did. “TCW” does contain one rather major wrinkle (not spoiled here) in the “Star Wars” universe, but the merit of even this will come down to perspective and individual taste. Longtime fans might be horrified, while those who don’t take it so seriously might find it adorable. (If that word sends a chill down your spine, consider yourself warned.)
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, six making-of Webisodes, three behind-the-scenes features, concept art gallery.

Opium: Diary of a Madwoman (NR, 2007, Koch Lorber)
Dr. Josef Brenner (Ulrich Thomsen) is, on top of being hooked on morphine, a man of creativity badly in need of a muse. Gizella (Kirsti Stubø), meanwhile, is convinced she has no brain and has been possessed by the devil. When the two meet at a mental institution for troubled women, something sparks, doctor connects with patient, and a case is made for the notion that there is someone for everyone. But while “Opium’s” base relationship — one provides hope, the other purpose — is easily understood, the movie that forms around it isn’t nearly as accommodating. To the contrary, “Opium” is almost brutally dreary, meandering awkwardly though opaque monologues and awash in the bizarre growing pains and twisted imagery that accompanied early 20th Century psychology. Fascination gives way to fatigue after a time, and once it becomes clear a connection to these characters is begging not to be made, the relentless melancholy raises questions of what “Opium’s” intentions could possibly have been. Don’t hold your breath looking for answers. In Hungarian with English subtitles, but an English dub is available as an option.
Extras: Interviews, behind-the-scenes feature, B-roll footage.