Pandamonium Week 1: Kung Fu Panda

It’s impossible for me to separate Kung Fu Panda from how I saw it. I attended the first public showing at the Little Rock IMAX theater. It was a big deal walking into my first “theatrical” IMAX movie. I’d seen the documentaries but this was a big deal. This was a real movie in IMAX size. And I was so hyped. Of course as we all know now “IMAX” doesn’t mean IMAX. I had a closer, bigger screen sure but it wasn’t the full vertigo inducing power of real IMAX. It was a good experience that didn’t exactly hit the spot.

Look I’m not trying to find the perfect metaphor for this movie but it was given to me.

Kung Fu Panda is exactly that. It’s definitely what you pay for and there’s a lot to be impressed with but when it’s all said and done it’s perfectly fine when you wanted something transcendent. It’s that weird place where the flaws wind up overshadowing a good work because you see what it should be. And I’m going to spoil it. This is the first review of three examining the Kung Fu Panda trilogy so that transcendent film this could be is coming fast.

I don’t need to give any history here. We were all alive in 2008. You know the film was a big hit for Dreamworks Animation. It spawned two sequels, a cartoon series, a holiday special, and all manner of spinoffs. It’s definitely a franchise that’s viewed warmly and of the two I’ve seen as of this writing I think that’s perfectly fair. It never got the overhype of the Minions so it fits its niche.

The film feels to me most like Dreamworks at an identity crisis. It’s really vital that we look at where the studio was in 2008. Shrek the Third was a hit but it was the kind of hit studios don’t like because it was well known nobody in the studio was pleased with it. Movies like Shark Tale and the Shrek films and Madagascar gave the company a brand that was aging poorly: big star vehicles that were mostly pop culture references. Meanwhile Pixar was really cementing with each film what animation could be.

Kung Fu Panda is between those places. It has the star issue big time and a deeply generic plot but it also has some maturity and style. It points to the company slowly growing up a little bit. None of Dreamworks’ flaws have ever vanished–Monsters vs Aliens followed and I seethe typing that title–but we’re two years out from How to Train Your Dragon, by far and away the studio’s grand triumph and it rests on this.

The plot? Ok I’m going to get that out fast. Po (Jack Black), a kung fu loving panda, is accidentally chosen as the chosen one Dragon Warrior. To the dismay and anger of the crochety Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Po trains with the warrior team the Furious Five, proving himself valuable if unskilled. There is a looming threat in Tai Lung (Ian McShane), one of Shifu’s former students angry he was denied a scroll said to contain infinite power. Of course Po will prove a great fighter due to a tiny technicality, he’ll learn to believe in himself, and he’ll be victorious.

I called this film perfectly fine but not next level and that’s really accurate. It’s not an insult though. This is a thoroughly engaging 92 minutes. It’s well crafted on almost every level. It’s staggering animation. If you’re well versed in martial arts, it’s even really clever with lots of references. It absolutely does what it should.

One thing I think this movie deserves a lot of credit for is this is the first truly pretty film from the studio. I like the Shrek films but they’re ugly. This has a pastoral quality throughout. You really see a lot of color that the studio had shied away from and it’s simply nice. I can groan about “liemax” but this definitely deserved a big screen. Again, How to Train Your Dragon owes a lot to what this opened up. The opening sequence by director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who was rewarded with directing the second film, deserves all the credit in the world.

The film is also interesting to me on a cultural level. Doing research for this piece, I learned that in China the film was wildly popular not just financially but critically. The filmmakers broke their backs trying not to be stereotypical and trying incredibly hard to reflect China in the film including bringing in advisors on every facet. They wanted to make a film that felt authentic and Chinese audiences adored the film to the point of a cultural discussion about why nothing like this was made there.

And that’s a really big deal because I think it speaks to why the film endures. Yes, I am about to get into the script and cast but having effort to feel different matters. You can’t just set something in a culture and it’s a backdrop. There needs to be invisible detail throughout and this is steeped in it. It sets it apart.

But it’s held back and I have to study why. Part of that really is down to the script. We have been through this chosen one subversion over and over. It would be done six years later far better with The Lego Movie which actively had an excuse with a narrative told by a child. It’s so uninteresting and it feels like it’s talking down to audiences. I know we reject The Incredibles saying not everyone can be special but so? We know we the audience can’t be special. Let us live vicariously through a movie! The movie following this plot is truly frustrating because everything else is so unique.

OK there’s also the cast. And I’ll get it out of the way. Black is great here. I’d argue he’s just as much cashing a check with nothing too shocking but Black can’t be dull. Ian McShane also does his usual but like Black is incredible so who cares. And I must give love to the always wonderful James Hong as Po’s conspicuously not a Panda but a goose father. He’s so warm and funny and as we all know from the second film, he’s the subject of a joke that will wreck your heart.

But everybody else? It’s criminal this many good actors are in this and used like this. Jackie Chan is so transparently only here for saying he’s in it, unlike his former costar queen Michelle Yeoh in the next film. David Cross and Seth Rogen are utterly baffling with maybe 12 lines each. But really it’s on two big names who had roles that belonged with others. Dustin Hoffman is lost here. He’s not awful but he sounds so disinterested that you can hear him trying to just get it in. That’s how the part is written I concede but he doesn’t go any further. And then there’s Angelina Jolie who I just want to scream at Drreamworks is NOT A VOICE ACTRESS. They used her in two roles and she is so utterly flat she’s beyond miscast. She just has no idea what to do and no wonder. She’s a very physical actress.

Those are my gripes but honestly, the IMAX theatrical comparison holds up really well in the end in a more positive way. This is a satisfying film. It’s entertaining. It’s funny. It looks great. It’s not what it could be but it’s still an experience worth having. And that’s good because next week? Next week it’s time to examine the sequel. Doors to be blown off.

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