Kung-fu fighting cartoon animals actually makes a lot of sense, if you stop and think about it.
After all, lots of kung fu movies are basically live-action cartoons anyway (not to mention the actual animé). Plus, a lot of real kung fu is inspired by animals, from the “Five Animals” tradition that includes Tiger, Crane, Snake, Leopard and Dragon, to styles named after other species including Monkey, Praying Mantis, Eagle, Crab, Toad and Panda.
Wait. Okay, maybe not Panda. Let’s face it: When you think “survival skills,” you just don’t think “panda.” A large carnivore subsisting almost entirely on a nutrition-poor grassy diet affording little energy for anything but copious eating and sleeping isn’t exactly a role model for disciplined physical and mental achievement.
Exhibit A: Po (Jack Black), a giant panda in a rural village in ancient China, who works in the family noodle business but dreams — in spite of his obvious lack of promise — of kung-fu awesomeness. (Literally dreams; the movie opens with an over-the-top 2D animated dream sequence notably similar to a brief 2D kung-fu daydream in the recent Horton Hears a Who.) “We all have our place in the world,” Po’s father tells him, clearly unable to envision his son in any other role but carrying on the family business. (“Sometimes I have a hard time believing I’m really your son,” Po confesses, with good reason: His father is a goose. This comment, though, triggers no revelations about Po’s early history.)
Despite the titular incongruity — or because of it, perhaps — Kung Fu Panda turns out to be both a surprisingly good kung fu movie and a solid family flick in what is shaping up to be a good year for family films — for older kids, at least. The action, though no more realistic than the most cartoony chop-socky movies, is really intense — too intense for sensitive youngsters. For kids up for rolling with the punches, though, Kung Fu Panda may just be DreamWorks Animation’s most entertaining and endearing CGI cartoon to date. (Of course, I was never particularly a fan of the studio’s big green poster boy.)
Po lives literally in the shadow of a great kung fu school, the Jade Palace, home of China’s greatest heroes, the Furious Five. The Five defend the Valley of Peace under the tutelage of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a gruff, diminutive red panda, and his mentor, the great Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), an ancient, Yoda-like turtle who invented kung fu. (Online I learn that apparently there really is an obscure rural style of Turtle kung fu. Wonder if there are any teenage mutant ninja practitioners?)
The biggest kung-fu fanboy in the valley, Po knows all there is to know about the Furious Five: aggressive Tigress (Angelina Jolie), balletic Crane (David Cross), sinuous Viper (Lucy Liu), crafty Monkey (Jackie Chan) and precise Mantis (Seth Rogen), each embodying, sort of, the style associated with his or her species. “You’re so much bigger than your action figures!” Po exclaims rapturously upon meeting his heroes. “Well, except for you, Mantis… you’re pretty much the same.”
Careful readers may notice that the Furious Five include three of the traditional “Five Animals.” What about the other two, Leopard and Dragon? They haven’t been forgotten. One is a past student — and the villain of the piece; the other has not yet appeared.
One day, word arrives that Oogway will at last name the Dragon Warrior, title honoring the student who reaches the highest level of achievement. (This seems to be in keeping with the “Five Animals” tradition, in which Dragon is apparently not a distinct style, but the perfection of the other four styles.) This announcement may have something to do with a former student and candidate for the title, the treacherous, nearly invincible snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), whom Oogway foresees may soon escape from prison.
Before long, to Po’s boundless joy and chagrin, he inexplicably finds himself swept into life at the Jade Palace, where he may finally achieve his heart’s desire… and face his worst fears. To Master Shifu and the Furious Five, though, Po’s arrival is like a bad dream. “You don’t belong here,” he’s repeatedly told in a sequence that had me wishing the Five had been better established as heroes, so they would come off less petty here. Meanwhile, Shifu grimly sets out to drive Po away by training him past all endurance.
But what Po lacks in aptitude, he more than makes up for in enthusiasm and determination. Shifu’s efforts to drum him out fail: Po’s so thrilled to be there, so awed by the kung-fu awesomeness of it all, that he chortles with delight even as Shifu whirls him about and slams him to the ground. He’s like the title character in Rudy: No matter how much you hurt him, he just won’t give up.
Slowly, Po’s persistence and good humor begin to win over the skeptical Five. Eventually, though, comes a poignant moment as Po faces the fact that he will never be something he isn’t — and never not be what he desperately wants not to be: his roly-poly self. Only then does the possibility begin present itself that there may be a way for a roly-poly panda to be more than he ever thought possible… if he starts by being himself.
The themes — be yourself, believe in yourself and you can achieve anything — are familiar ones, with a magic-feather spin in the somewhat half-baked notion that it’s enough to think that something is special to make it special. On the other hand, the story also emphasizes the necessity of persistence and discipline — and the inevitability of adversity and failure — on the road to success.
There are other messages along the way. Shifu tells Po that “The mark of a true hero is humility,” and Shifu and Oogway have a remarkably nuanced philosophical exchange about the extent to which we can and can’t control events around us.
There’s also a little kung-fu mysticism, particularly in the strange scene in which Oogway fades out of the picture like Yoda in Return of the Jedi. Granted that his departure is a dramatic necessity (since Tai Lung is no threat as long as Oogway is around), it could have been less clumsily handled. Oogway’s epigrammatic utterances range from thought-provoking (“One meets one’s destiny on the road one takes to avoid it”) to flaky (“There is no good or bad news, only news”).
Kung Fu Panda is not just a comedy, but a kung-fu comedy — and the kung fu is really good. (DreamWorks animator Rodolphe Guenoden, a long-time martial-arts enthusiast, was designated kung fu choreographer for the production.) The flip side is that while it’s all played for laughs, the viewer really feels the blows. I winced more than once as characters took shots so stunning that the screen almost subliminally went dark or flashed white to convey being knocked silly.
On the other hand, the kung-fu authenticity is also the film’s secret weapon. In a brilliant training sequence that’s the movie’s best and funniest moment, the dumpling scene, Po and Shifu duel with chopsticks like martial artists with bo staffs; it’s like a Jackie Chan sequence, and the persuasiveness is precisely what makes it so funny. There’s a pitch-perfect feel for esoteric kung-fu goofiness, as when Shifu extinguishes a whole roomful of candles with a single sweep, or stirs up air currents to direct the flight of flower petals to impossibly precise effect.
The movie bumps along too quickly to get much mileage out of its big-name cast; whether Lucy Liu or Jackie Chan are well-cast isn’t terribly relevant since they get so few lines. Black and Hoffman make the biggest impressions, with Black bringing the charm and sweetness, Hoffman the crusty rigor. One or two additional scenes might have helped: After the fantastic dumpling scene, I would have liked a follow-up scene with Po training with, and ultimately against, the Furious Five as a whole (and winning their respect at that point, rather than only in the climax).
The story is sweeter and shows more heart than you might think. When we first meet Tai Lung, he seems the ultimate bad dude, nothing more. Who would guess that his past connection with the Jade Palace might still strike a chord, albeit briefly, in his stony heart — or that of his flinty former teacher?
I seem to be on a comparison kick: A while back I did a massive comparison/contrast between Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and The Empire Strikes Back. Then I followed up with a comparison/contrast of Fantasia and Fantasia 2000.
I’m not a big box-office watcher, but I pay enough attention to be frustrated by audiences rewarding films that I think are undeserving and ignoring films that I think merit attention. Not always, of course. It’s gratifying to watch movies like Green Zone and The Wolfman flop. But then along come films like Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans, both of which critics generally saw in a dim light, and audiences flock enthusiastically to them.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.