Released in the summer of 2008, Kung Fu Panda enjoyed impressive box office success, grossing $632 million. It was the third highest grossing film of the year worldwide and had DreamWorks’s best opening for a non-sequel. Since anthropomorphized animals and celebrity voice actors were hardly new for DreamWorks, I would like to think Kung Fu Panda’s success stems from the fact that it’s a really solid movie with true effort put into it.
Following his previous performance in Shark Tale, Jack Black returns to DreamWorks Animation as Po, a clumsy, overweight panda who dreams of becoming a legendary kung fu master like his heroes, the Furious Five. When Po seeks to attend a martial arts ceremony at the nearby temple, a dramatic firework-propelled entrance results in him being selected as the prophesied Dragon Warrior. This shocks almost everyone while disgusting others. Nevertheless, Po will have to master kung fu quickly, as the dreaded fighter Tai Lung is on his way to the temple, and it’s the Dragon Warrior who is destined to defeat him.
The film opens with a 2D-animated sequence, depicting what is basically a self-insert fanfiction narrated by Po: from the opening line (“Legend tells of a legendary warrior, whose kung fu skills were the stuff of legend!”), it gives us an idea of the kind of comedy we’re in for. Most of the jokes are genuinely funny, from visual gags to dry wit (“There is now a Level Zero”), to the fun that comes from Po’s clumsy but well-meaning enthusiasm and his fanboy gushing over the Furious Five.
It’s not all comedy, however, and the more serious sides to the story work well too. What is a simple story on the surface—an apparently hopeless main character rising to become a hero—is made more complex and interesting through the handling and exploration of the characters. The Furious Five and their master, Shifu, are not at all happy to have Po around but gain some respect for him as he refuses to quit, while Shifu comes to realize that bringing out the best in Po requires a better understanding on his own part. Po’s determination, meanwhile, is driven by an awareness of his flaws and a desperate desire to improve himself.
Most compelling and emotional is the relationship between Shifu and Tai Lung, who was not merely the former’s student but his adopted son; the scenes between them, in the past and present, reveal the sad story of how Tai Lung became a villain, following a road that was paved with good intentions by Shifu. The story also features meaningful ideas about the nature of destiny—such as having Tai Lung’s escape from imprisonment be a self-fulfilling prophecy—and what it means to be “special.”
Jack Black gives a brilliant performance as Po, clearly enjoying himself with the more comedic side but also managing the emotional drama effectively. Dustin Hoffman is especially good in his more serious performance as Shifu. The Furious Five have a notable cast behind them: Angelina Jolie (Tigress), Lucy Liu (Viper), Jackie Chan (Monkey), Seth Rogen (Mantis), and David Cross (Crane). Regrettably, apart from Tigress, they don’t get enough lines to really justify the presence of such high-profile actors.
The production team for Kung Fu Panda drew inspiration from Chinese artwork and live-action kung fu movies for the film’s visuals, and the results are beautiful. There are some brief scenes among impressive landscapes, but even the village and temple where most of the film takes place are lovely to look at: bright, colorful, and recognizably Chinese. The Chinese-themed instrumental score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell also lends itself well to every scene, whether peaceful or dramatic.
And on top of all that, the film also offers some awesome action scenes, worthy of a more traditional kung fu movie. After watching Po’s antics in the first act, witnessing Tai Lung’s escape from prison—which involves him dodging ballista bolts and arrows, racing up collapsing rocks, and powering his way through a few hundred rhino guards—comes as a thrilling surprise. More fight scenes follow in the same vein, as well as a more light-hearted but still enjoyable sequence where Po and Shifu fight over a dumpling. The film’s final battle feels a little out of place, being more played for laughs, though it is still entertaining.
With its title and central premise, Kung Fu Panda could easily have been a bumbling comedy aimed solely at children, but with real heart and complexity to its story and brilliant action and humor, it instead offers something for all ages. Personally, it’s still one of my favorite DreamWorks films.
What are your thoughts about Kung Fu Panda? Kung fu awesome or slapstick cheesy?
Edited by: Kelly Conley