Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list grows regularly and is currently more than 1800 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.
Among the films that Fogs picked out as classics from my watchlist, he also included a handful of films that — while not necessarily the film-school shoo-ins — he felt were still worthy of inclusion due to being cultural touchstones, or popular films, or ones he simply felt I would enjoy. Kung Fu Panda was one of them, and while I recall him getting some gentle teasing from a few of his readers when he selected it as a Movie That Everyone Should See, I was happy to check it out. I’ve never stopped liking animation, and it looked like a fun one.
Kung Fu Panda is a Dreamworks production, and like a few of their other films, it puts the premise right in the title. Po is a panda, he learns kung fu. Fairly straightforward. Of course, Po is voiced by Jack Black, and is designed to be like his voice actor in a few regards. He’s a bit of a slob, more than a bit of a goofball, and, of course, he’s considerably more rotund than a typical kung fu fighter. He starts the film as a noodle cook, apprenticed to his father, dreaming of something more. He stumbles into it when the local temple receives word that villain Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has broken loose and is coming for revenge and to obtain the Dragon Scroll he believes his rightful destiny. The elder master of the shrine decides it is time to appoint the real Dragon Warrior to oppose Tai Lung, but instead of selecting one of the “Furious Five” students of the temple, he selects Po. Thus Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is tasked with training the utterly inept Po to be ready to take on the responsibility of the Dragon Scroll and the challenge of facing Tai Lung.
It’s a kids’ movie, and a fairly basic plot; there aren’t any surprises here as far as the story is concerned. But that’s not to say it isn’t entertaining. Even though we all know where it’s going to go, the journey is worth watching because the main characters have two important qualities: they’re sympathetic, and they’re funny. It’s a rare individual who has never been disillusioned with their life and never dreamed of adventure (though the form may vary); Po’s ambitions are easy to relate to, especially as he throws himself into it with enthusiasm despite being completely incompetent. Shifu has to deal with a student he has no faith in but must still somehow turn into a master, but his personal history with Tai Lung prevents him from being an unsympathetic mentor figure. The Furious Five — voiced by both comic and action stars ranging from Seth Rogen to Jackie Chan — don’t get as much individual characterization, but within the group dynamics there’s a range of bitterness and sympathy for Po’s situation.
But it’s the energy of the film that really sells it. The comedy and the action are both high-speed and non-stop. If it’s a slow moment in the action, there’s something to laugh at (aside from a few well-done emotional scenes). If there’s nothing to laugh at, it’s probably in the middle of an action sequence — and many of those are comic as well.
Visually, the film is a treat. Dreamworks has been a solid contender in the CG cartoon arena since Shrek, and Kung Fu Panda is no exception. The background is filled with colorful details, and everything looks beautiful. Characters all move in their own unique ways, giving them a greater sense of personality. Think about it: in real life, how often do you see two people who really walk and move exactly the same way? Now consider how often you see just that in animation. Even the characters who are perhaps the most alike physically in Kung Fu Panda, Tai Lung and Tigress, move very differently from one another. Throw in creative visual designs, and it goes a long way to establishing different character personalities even on those who aren’t given as much development in the plot itself. The one quibble I have with the animation is that I think Po might have looked better had his fur been just a bit fluffier, but this is a minor thing. I also have to say I loved the animation style in the intro sequence; it might have been interesting to see the whole film in that style.
Overall, while I’m not certain I’d give Kung Fu Panda all time classic status, it’s certainly an enjoyable film and worth checking out. And I’ll be catching the sequels (the third is slated for 2015) when I have the opportunity.
Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.