“Prepare for Awesomeness”
Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne
Starring Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman and Ian McShane
In the Valley of Peace, the young panda Po (Black) dreams of being a legendary kung fu warrior, instead of a waiter in his father’s (James Hong) restaurant. When word comes down that the great kung fu teacher Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) is about to choose who will become the Dragon Warrior, Po just wants to watch the selection; he never expects to be chosen.
While Master Shifu (Hoffman) tries to force Po to quit, his prize pupils the Fearsome Five – Tigress (Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) – set out to confront the renegade warrior Tai Lung (McShane) and holy crap there’s a lot of characters in this film.
What’s wrong with it?
Like many anthropomorphic animations, Kung Fu Panda leans heavily on jokes which would be racist or at least fattist if the characters weren’t animals. Pigs are all blue collar, ducks are all civil servants, and the film has a lot of fat panda jokes.
While mostly very family friendly, a couple of moments – especially the denoument – are weirdly brutal, especially compared to some of the goofier moments.
The animation hides the fact that this mediaeval China isn’t just anthropomorphic, but what in live action would look rather whitewashed. Jackie Chan is the only fully Chinese actor in the cast and gets about five lines in total.
What’s right with it?
For its flaws, Kung Fu Panda is a hell of a lot of fun.
The animation, and especially the action animation, is exceptional.
The story is kung fu hero’s journey 101, but done well. Po is a likable hero, balancing the elements of fool and warrior without being too annoying, and the growing bond between master and pupil is very touching.
How bad is it really?
Kung Fu Panda is pretty awesome. It’s one of the films that really established Dreamworks (then in its tenth year) as an ongoing concern in the same league as the House of Mouse. It justly spawned two sequels and became one of the animated smashes of the noughties.
Best bit (if such there is)?
- In the first bravura action sequence of the film, Tai Lung breaks out of his own personal supermax using a feather.
- Realising that Po’s kung fu flourishes not on focused and disciplined action, but on goal-orientation and not thinking too much about the impossibility of what he does, Shifu takes his student up on the mountain and motivates him with food. Once Po has made progress, Shifu sets out a picnic and invites Po to eat, leading into a spectacular chopstick duel.
What’s up with…?
- Part of me feels I should mention the fact that Po’s father is a goose, but there have been two sequels covering that by now.
Production values – Oh my, it’s a lovely thing. The animation is bright, lively and fluid, and the characters feature an intriguing blend of anthropomorphic and animal movements. 3
Dialogue and performances – The actors are uniformly good, with special mention due to Randall Duk Kim’s chilled out Oogway and Ian McShane’s diabolically driven Tai Lung. The writing is also excellent, a kind of love letter to kung fu cinema which rises above the usual level and includes a few pretty uplifting aphorisms. 2
Plot and execution – The story is pretty basic, but done well; even the whole ‘the power was within you all along’ revelation was nicely presented in the form of a parable about soup. 3
Randomness – Taken on its own, Kung Fu Panda is a little odd, but this is because it exists in a particular milieu. It’s a kung fu movie, with a kung fu movie’s arc. 4
Waste of potential – It’s a kung fu movie about a fat panda who learns to fight from a magical scroll. It’s way better than it could have been. 0