"Kung Fu Panda:" A Light and Enjoyable Summer Film
It’s funny how unfunny comedies can be. Being bogged down by a bad concept or a lugubrious set of gags can instantly turn the experience of a poor comedy into pain. It’s perhaps perfectly summed up by the opposite reactions we have to bad dramas and comedies: a bad drama makes us laugh, a bad comedy makes us cry. DreamWorks released two of the unfunniest comedies I’ve seen in a while last year in Shrek 3 and Bee Movie. The DreamWorks staples of star-studded casts and half-baked pop-culture references were clearly wearing very thin. Thankfully, Kung Fu Panda is a lot more fun than that. I wouldn’t count on this film to save DreamWorks by any means; it’s too simple and unassuming a flick for that, and it is not without its flaws. Still, what was grating and cringeworthy in last year’s output has been mostly turned around in Mark Osborne and John Stevenson’s kung fu comedy, which doesn’t attempt to outshine Wuxia traditions as much as it pays gentle tribute.
We start with a dream sequence of Po, the titular character, narrating his own faux-legend of wandering warrior badassery. This scene itself deserves notice as being so totally awesome in design and realization – it’s like a martial arts version of the 2D-styled credit sequence in Ratatouille – that it’s almost disappointing to be thrust back into the world of fully-fleshed CGI. Po is a lowly noodle-soup waiter in his family’s restaurant until he goes to a tournament which intends to determine the identity of the legendary Dragon Warrior. That title gets thrust onto him by accident. (Or is it? Actually, that’s more of a Zen question than a conspiracy question.) These plot mechanics are mere requirements to put Po in the position of unwitting/unready kung fu master, and it’s about as slow as you expect in getting to it. The film does actually require some time to warm up, especially after the stellar opening.
But once we’re really into the story, we start getting somewhere quick. That’s because this almost isn’t even Po’s story. For a while, and even as we continue onwards, the story is really about Master Shifu. It won’t spoil too much for you to know that the film’s main message is “believe in yourself”; I’m sure somewhere in the credits is an official logo of the “Believe In Yourself” Animated Film Union, LA Chapter 113. What works more as a real dramatic struggle is Shifu’s need to figure out how to utilize and approach this lazy civilian panda, who has the passion of an Internet fanboy and just about all the physical skills of one as well. In a way, the film may work best as a meditation on teachers and their methods, which ties into all the major characters of the film.
However, the film is too light to be any serious examination of anything, and you don’t go to a Wuxia story looking for pure intellectual stimulation. Although the CGI is still a bit of a comedown from the cool opening, it also bears the more stylized look that has served DreamWorks better in films like Madagascar, and it has a nice looseness that powers the action sequences. Martial arts in animation are always best served when highlighted in uniquely impossible ways, and we have a few standout scenes here that should be worth the ticket price. Best of all is a fight over a dumpling that equals the ballet-like physical iconography of other chop-socky greats, even in its humble origins.
The flaws are still present, though, even in the good spirits and fun of the film. The Fearsome Five eat up each other’s screen time in such a way that they barely register as characters. They’re not terribly important to the main story or the main relationship of Po and Shifu, but neither do they prove themselves terribly fascinating. They also reveal the core weakness of DreamWorks’ casting tendencies. The noted names in the roles that have meat to them – Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and Ian McShane – are able to shine well. Hoffman in particular helps Shifu steal the entire film away from everybody else; it’s like nobody else even had a chance against his acting fu. But seriously, did we need a name in every role? Credit goes to the use of Jolie and Liu without ever forcing them to be romantic interests for Po (such courtship is not in the stars for a wandering warrior badass), but they are barely able to make a mark. Rogen and Cross do what they can. Worst of all is Jackie Chan, whose character Monkey has maybe four lines at the most, and not even especially memorable lines. Wasting someone as inherently charming and goofy in his martial arts awesomeness as Jackie Chan is a crime. Monkey doesn’t even use any random items in a fight, like a ladder or a pen or a toilet seat! C’mon!
This is in no way the next great animated film. And I’m sure Mark Osborne can do something really meaningful if he’s given a chance, if More is any indication. But for now, he and John Stevenson have provided what is basically an optimal summer film. It’s not a tentpole, not a major license, not a film reaching for anything beyond what it is. And since that’s practically the lesson of the film, kudos for its honesty. Kung Fu Panda is a film that’s often fun, often legitimately funny, and even a little thrilling in a few spots. It’s good entertainment, and as we head into the lazy days of summer, there’s nothing wrong with that. If anything, we should be thankful that it’s a film that doesn’t hit a bunch of sour notes, but rather knows its good notes and hits them well.