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"Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness" - Only Half a Loaf of Kung Fu

Was just a little bit frighteningAnything worth doing is worth overdoing, and there may be no animation studio in Hollywood who embraces that maxim more thoroughly than DreamWorks Animation. If one takes their chief executive at face value, they never work on any projects that aren’t destined from the outset for three- to four-movie sagas with spinoffs and TV specials in the wings (except, of course, the ones that tank at the box office in their first installments). So here comes Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, and despite my deep affection for the first movie and appreciation for the second, my hopes that the franchise would continue to yield higher creative returns is significantly lower now that I’ve seen the first two episodes of the TV show.

The title character of the franchise, Po (Mick Wingert), is a fat, lazy, roly-poly panda who is also the legendary Dragon Warrior, defending the land from all manner of meanies with the help of the kung-fu warrior team the Furious Five and their teacher, Master Shifu. In “Sticky Situation,” Po’s attempt to cheer up Mantis (who has just broken up with his girlfriend) circuitously results in the destruction of their training hall. Rather than own up to his mistake, he seeks out the original builder of the hall, Master Taotie (Wallace Shawn), who turns out to be not quite what he seems. The second episode, “Chain Reaction,” pits Tigress and Po against a band of dim crocodile bandits (led by a rather amusing John DiMaggio), with a valuable but heavy stone column and the ruby embedded in it at stake. Adding to the mayhem is the fact that Tigress and Po are handcuffed together for most of the episode and must learn to get along and work together to defeat their common enemy.

I certainly can’t complain about the technical aspects in moving Kung Fu Panda from large screen to small. The animation is undoubtedly simpler than the visual dazzle in the movies, but the tricks they use to save on the rendering budget are subtle and easily overlooked. The show plays the same mixed-media games as the movies, injecting occasional hand-animated elements echoing the opening credits of the first film. There are also quite a few surprisingly potent action scenes in each episode, with the battles in “Chain Reaction” feeling smoother and better choreographed and shot than even the ones in the second movie. Avatar the Last Airbender fans will be unsurprised at the quality of the martial arts on display once they recognize Sifu Kisu as the martial arts consultant for the show. Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness also gets another boost from Avatar from the musical contributions of the Track Team, who provide the same unobtrusive but effective background music for the on-screen action.

They fought with expert timingMick Wingert does a terrific job replacing Jack Black as Po, and Fred Tatasciore does a comparable job replacing Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu. Of the rest of the Furious Five, only Lucy Liu reprises her role from the movie, but she only appears for a flash in “Sticky Situation.” Thus far, those hoping for a better look at the Furious Five will continue to be disappointed. I am slightly revising my opinion that Angelina Jolie was wasted as Tigress, simply because the normally impressive Kari Wahlgren makes even less of an impression playing the character in the show. I’m beginning to think that Tigress is just too underwritten and it was only Jolie’s performance that saved her from being entirely forgettable. I think she was still largely wasted in the films, but for different reasons.

Being predictable isn’t something I hold against the Kung Fu Panda movies, especially since the martial arts genre is one defined by rather rigid formulas and a small set of plots. Unfortunately, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness is borrowing more of its clichés and formulaic elements from sitcoms rather than martial arts movies, and I don’t think the format does Po any real favors. “Sticky Situation” is especially disappointing, throwing in numerous sitcom-friendly gags that don’t yield a lot of laughs or mesh very well with the action scenes. The third-act plot twist also makes me rethink my preference for not holding predictability against Kung Fu Panda. “Chain Reaction” does better despite its even more clichéd central hook, turning in a few surprising twists along the way and a lot of gags that are set up by the situation and the characters involved instead of just arising from convention. Unfortunately, a lot of the plot rests on doubts that Po deserves to be the Dragon Warrior, which was a reliable plot engine for the first movie but omitted entirely in the second because it was just taken for granted that everyone had (mostly) gotten over that. To trot it out again for the series feels like a significant step backwards, covering ground that was already covered quite well in the first movie. The surprise isn’t that it works well, but that it can still work at all.

The cat's a little bit frighteningIn fact, I wonder whether Kung Fu Panda really is suited for a half-hour television show at all. Jack Black’s goofy charm in the original movies is nicely carried by Mick Wingert, but I think Po’s real appeal as a character comes from watching him rise to an occasion that presents real challenges (and I would even say the same about Jack Black in general). There’s a real emotional kick seeing this fat slacker slob strive and succeed to be more than he is, gaining the physical and mental self-awareness that is the hallmark of any great martial artist. The second movie fabricated somewhat artificial structures to repeat the same trick, but they were still compelling enough to make us feel like Po had achieved something by the end credits. A feature film can build up to the kind of occasion that Po can really live up to, but these half-hour TV installments fall well short. “Sticky Situation” is just trivial and “Chain Reaction” is just repetitive. Po doesn’t really have to work very hard to rise to these occasions, and becomes a lot less interesting as a result. I question whether a half-hour, non-serialized TV show is the best place to showcase Po.

In the end, the more modest ambitions and bigger constraints of a TV show prove to be Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness‘s undoing. Even in a reasonably good episode like “Chain Reaction,” Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness feels superfluous and insubstantial, especially compared to the surprising impact of the movies. If it has an effect at all, it seems like it would be to dilute the franchise and Po himself rather than do very much to enhance either one.

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