PG for violence and scariness. The term "Kung Fu" is in the title. There's a lot of Kung Fu. But the bad guy, Tai Lung, is actually pretty darned scary. He's lit in a scary way and he growls a lot. If this was live action, it might hit PG-13, but that's just because I'm sure someone would throw in some language. It's pretty harmless if you are okay with violence, as most Americans are, it's a pretty okay movie. PG.
DIRECTORS: Mark Osborne and John Stevenson
Everything I say about this movie you should take with a grain of salt. Since I started this blog three years ago, I've tried to stay super focused on the film. I always know that I'm going to be writing about a movie, so I try throwing away all distractions. But the kids wanted to watch this one while I was doing the dishes. I hadn't formally watched it before, so I thought I could knock this one out while doing the tail end of the dishes. Keep the following thought in mind while reading this: real multitaskers are extremely rare. I've always acknowledged that I'm not a multitasker, so the beginning of the movie is a bit of a blur. I'm sorry to people who love this movie because I haven't really given it the experience it deserved.
I don't know what it is about Kung Fu Panda, but I'm never excited to watch this movie. I've always kind of gone into it with the "I'm good" attitude. Part of it is the Dreamworks attitude of animation. I liked it with Shrek in college, but that's even kind of a burden to me. These movies always seem very forgettable. They are kind of unloved. I don't think that Kung Fu Panda is unloved. But I also don't get the same vibe of quality that I would see in a Disney movie. Part of that could come down to budget. I know that Disney has all of the money and each movie kind of shows that. But Kung Fu Panda feels very tropey to me. I'm about to rip into this movie and keep this all in perspective. I think the movie is fine. As a kid, I would have adored this movie. But from a dad's perspective, I have a couple of points. Children's film can be absolutely marvelous. Honestly, I have quite a few movies that are aimed at kids that completely blow the mind. When I watch a movie that is merely okay, I can now kind of hold it against the film. Kung Fu Panda kind of feels like a cash grab that was taken by its production team. I can completely see the pitch among the Dreamworks corporate suits. Look at the name. The title of the movie is the most marketable title I've ever seen. Kung Fu. Panda. "Boys love kung fu and fighting and stuff." "Girls think that pandas are adorable." "Get a big name that people will like. Jack Black!" They got the School of Rock guy to play the part he does time and time again. He's the rock-star loser, only a panda. I have so many points I want to split off into, but I want to give the most credit where credit is due. This was a cash grab, but the folks who made it really made something pretty great here. It's just that the tapestry was pretty hacky to begin with.
But this brings me to children's programming tropes that get really old. This one deals two real problematic tropes that I really don't like. The first example is the "white savior" trope. I know. They're all animals. So are the animals in Zootopia, so let's not go there. Most of the characters in the movie are based on Eastern ideals. I know that they are mostly voiced by caucasian actors, but their mentality is that of Eastern philosophies. Po is insanely Western. He's overweight. He admires kung fu as something rad and cool. He has no sense of mystery or depth and he's supposed to be the savior of kung fu. I don't even think it is offensive. It's more just lazy. Yeah, it's real problematic. But even worse in a case like this, it's lazy. I can't stand another entry into the grand list of movies that all have a very similar plot. I'm talking about Ferngully: The Last Airbender. I'm talking about Avatar. I'm talking Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, The Last Samurai and countless others. The other narratives has the white savior come in as villains and learn their true morality by associating with a more spiritual people. Kung Fu Panda doesn't get that bad. But he clearly is the least qualified person to be the great savior of kung fu. (I'm sorry I don't remember the title. Dragon Warrior? That seems right.) The second trope is something that is almost exclusively found in kids' films. It takes the transcendentalist idea of the value of the individual and takes it to an illogical conclusion. Because Po really wants to be the Dragon Warrior (I'm just going to call it that without looking it up), he can be that in an irresponsibly short amount of time. I'm not against kids believing that they can be anything that they want when they grow up. But it does kind of wash over the hard work that goes into it. The other warriors (Furious Five?) have trained their whole lives. They have devoted every element of their existence to becoming the best warrior that they could possibly be. That's why the bad guy is mad! He's devoted himself to becoming the best and then the title is given to someone who hasn't trained himself. Po is almost an egregious case. Po's entire life has been about gluttony and comfort. Yeah, he goes into training with the right attitude, but he has done nothing to earn the title that is given to him. For the grand gesture that you can be anything you want, I'm on board. But it shouldn't make the other characters villains when they don't see any value to that.
I'm going to compare this to another movie that has a similar message, but handles it a bit better. Pacific Rim: Uprising has the narrative of someone being given great responsibility without having been trained nearly as formally as everyone else. This is the savant archetype. Amara Namani (I looked it up) is treated poorly by her fellow recruits because she's younger than the rest of them. She's attacked and has to prove herself time and again. But Amara has created her own Jaeger. She is downtrodden and would have been the ideal recruit had that opportunity been presented to her. The reason that she's accepted into the Jaeger program is because of her innovation in spite of the lack of resources. Po, however, has done nothing to hone his craft. Admittedly, he studies the history of the masters, which is admirable. But that is a fanboy sooner than a trainee. He's morbidly obese. The problem isn't that he works in a noodle shop. That's actually a compelling character trait for me. I like the idea of finding kung fu in the simple things, which the movie touches on a bit. But he doesn't train to become the best, only to be a weaker version than those trained by the best. Instead, the mantle is just given to him. I don't really understand the reasoning behind the decision to have Po as the Dragon Warrior. One of the themes of the movie that I like, but it isn't supported throughout, is that mysticism is kind of phoney baloney. But choosing Po because he was destined goes against that idea.
But the other elements, besides the very tropey nature of this movie, are kind of great. The movie is kind of funny and I have to hand that off to Jack Black. Yeah, he's a variation of his School of Rock character. Really, Jack Black plays that type of character a lot. It doesn't mean that I don't like it. It really works for Po. Po, despite looking like a panda, has insanely good energy throughout the movie. I'm kind of glad that the movie doesn't take the Kung Fu stuff so seriously. It's really weak that Po kind of beats his opponents through his sheer girth and luck. Tai Lung gets really nerfed in the final fight. But it doesn't really matter. Instead of being really intense about kung fu, the fight sequences work because of fun framing and clever thinking. Yeah, Po shouldn't have won. If I had to place bets, I could guess that Po gets wrecked in the second movie because luck doesn't work like that. But for a first film, the movie does get me to like Po overall. The other warriors, considering that there are some names in there that I really like, aren't that exciting. I can see them being built up in future entries that I'll, no doubt, be exposed to through my kids' obsession with these kinds of movies. It also really helps that I'm pretty sure that Kung Fu Panda 2 is on Netflix. The movie isn't bad by any means. I just get so tired of worn out formulas and fairly lazy tropes. The reason that I like Disney stuff is that they occasionally bring out some fresh stories to work with. I made the comparison to Zootopia earlier, showing that, just because they are animals doesn't mean that they can't go deep. Kung Fu Panda really doesn't offer too much new, but it is a good time.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.