Up to this point, the last DreamWorks movie I was interested in seeing in theaters was Shrek 2. Past that, I either never saw them on the big screen, or saw them when I just happened to be by a theater and thought I would wing it. The formulas and tropes of the studio had permeated through the marketing alone, that DreamWorks movies were wacky slapstick-filled schlock-fests with typecasting out the ass. And by all accounts, Kung Fu Panda looked to be no different. The ads featuring Jack Black making obnoxious kung fu noises, screaming and yelling, “Skadoosh!” completely turned me off. But then I copped and decided to watch it anyway. And I’m glad I did. To burn through the story real quick, the film takes place in the Valley of Peace, presumably in China, which is guarded by the Furious Five, kung fu fighters all trained by the wise and skilled Master Shifu. Po, a portly panda, is their biggest fan, and dreams of mastering the art of kung fu. Shifu’s master, Master Oogway, senses great danger, and decides now is the time to pick the “Dragon Warrior,” who is destined to bring peace to their land. Po is chosen seemingly by freak accident, and Shifu must begrudgingly train him. There’s more to it than this, of course, but I wanted to keep it short.
The film opens with an eye-popping animated sequence of Po’s dream, done in 2D, and my interest peaked immediately. After that, I got my first relief: instead of being smug and arrogant as I feared from the trailers, Po is actually sweet and humble, and moreover, is like a giant geeky fanboy. His excitement and outbursts are only fueled by his excitement over being put in this unexpected position of being trained by his heroes; the scene of him running around the palace past all of the artifacts he’s only dreamed of seeing is indicative of that. All the other characters are just as interesting to watch: Shifu is a non-nonsense instructor as you’d think, but we later find out why that is and it kind of becomes the main crux of the story. We see his frustration with being saddled with Po, and eventually his growth in learning from his own master on how to be one unto him. The Furious Five are kind of minor characters since it’s not their story, but are definitely fine characters, and really fun to see in action. Finally, Tai Lung is an excellent villain; from the jaw-dropping prison break sequence, you know he’s a fucking maniac and a force to be reckoned with, and as we learn his back story, even one who feel some sympathy for, despite the horrible things he’s done.
On paper, the story seems simple, and in title, the premise seems dumb. It’s Kung Fu Panda, and it’s about a flabby, stupid panda trying to learn kung fu! It seems like it would be typical DreamWorks fare. But it actually ends up being a lot more than that. The characters have a surprising amount of depth to them that elevate the story, giving the impeding threat of doom more weight since we care about these guys. Po knows he’s a screw-up and has been brought there by accident, but as Master Oogway insists, there are no accidents. By the urgings of his master, Shifu must learn how to train him, and goes from trying to get rid of him to figuring out exactly what motivates him. Meanwhile we go into the back story between him and Tai Lung, which also ties in with the Five to some degree, and ultimately connects everyone onto the same wavelength. It’s Shifu and the Five vs. Tai Lung, with Po entering as this wild card that’s apparently destined to take him on himself. And in that final battle, you not only buy that this tubby panda can defeat this insane wild beast, you cheer him on for it. It’s a rudimentary story told in the most satisfying, crowd-pleasing-est way possible.
The visuals are outstanding. The designs, the sets, the animation, everything looks great, as it usually does in a DreamWorks picture. Standing out here, of course, is the fight choreography. From the beginning where we see Shifu training the Five as the camera spins around and around, your mind is just on overload trying to keep up with the action. But in a good way, in that it’s so well done. The amazing sequences in this film are so numerous: the aforementioned prison break, Oogway’s ascension into the heavens, the Five fighting off Tai Lung, and the final battle at the end. But a lot of the fight scenes have more going on in them, like Shifu vs. Tai Lung is a lot more weighted and emotional, for reasons I won’t spoil. Also Shifu’s methods for training Po may seem obvious and comical at first, but you grow to really believe in it, and ultimately see how it pays off in the end as the two of them duke it out over possession of a very sacred object. Beyond scenes, there’s a lot of great direction here too, and so many great little moments. Like when Tai Lung escapes, there’s a flash of lightning to the next scene of the valley at sunup, where we see his shadow loom over for a second before it fades away. This movie’s full of a ton of neat stuff like that.
Another thing this movie pushed: end credit sequences. There’s more 2D animation over the cast credits, then we get like a rolling scroll of production art, and it looks absolutely fantastic. Pixar had been doing this stuff too, with Ratatouille, and WALL-E in the same year, but it seemed around this point other studios were all starting to do stuff like this. Traditional animation isn’t dead, it’s just relegated to the end credits. Whelp, I guess it’s better than none at all.
Of all the films so far, this is the first one I can say that I truly love, and it’s the one that I feel really started DreamWorks on its new direction. Sure, one week after its box office success, Katzenberg came out and claimed that six(!) sequels were in the works, so the company’s franchise focus was not gone, but the movie was solid, it used physical comedy appropriately, its characters were likeable and interesting, and it had a solid emotional core and meaning. That, and it’s a lot of kung fu kickin’ fun. From this point on we’ll be seeing more movies like this, that look deceptively crass and horrible, but ultimately end up pretty good. Well, I have one specifically in mind that this regards to that we’ll get to later. But also sometimes what it looks like ends up being what it is. Sometimes. Now I’m all mixed up. Let me lie down for a bit, I’ll straighten out and get back to you.