Should I Watch..? 'Kung Fu Panda'
What's the big deal?
Kung Fu Panda is an animated martial arts comedy film released in 2008 and was co-directed by debutants John Stevenson and Mark Osborne. The film is set in a world populated by anthropomorphic animals and features the efforts of martial arts enthusiast and overweight panda Po to join a legendary group of fighters as a great evil is unleashed upon the world. The film features the vocal talents of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Ian McShane, Randall Duk Kim, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen and David Cross. Although it wasn't the first feature-length CG film produced by DreamWorks Animation, it was the studio's most successful non-sequel film since Madagascar in 2005 and launched a new franchise for the studio who had been banking on their previous figurehead Shrek for a number of years. The film was hugely successful at the box office with global takings in excess of $631 million and was largely welcomed by critics who were won over by the film's humour, animation and action sequences.
What's it about?
In ancient China, a land known as the Valley of Peace is populated by talking animals is protected by five famous martial arts legends. Tigress, Mantis, Monkey, Viper and Crane are The Furious Five - legendary fighters trained by the reclusive Master Shifu and revered by the citizens they protect, none more so than overweight and bumbling panda Po. Po dreams of joining his heroes and begin his training but he can't neglect his adoptive father Mr Ping who is struggling with his workload in his busy restaurant.
One day, Shifu's mentor - an elderly Galapalos tortoise called Grand Master Oogway - shares a vision he had with Shifu about the danger posed by evil snow leopard Tai Lung. In Oogway's vision, Lung escapes from his prison and begins to exact violent revenge in his quest for the fabled Dragon Scroll which is said to hold the secret for limitless power. As Shifu begins his searched for the fabled Dragon Warrior (a mythical fighter who might hold the power to defend the Dragon Scroll), Po makes his way to a martial arts tournament and accidentally finds himself closer to the action than he might have hoped.
Randall Duk Kim
Grand Master Oogway
Mark Osborne & John Stevenson
Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger*
Release Date (UK)
4th July, 2008
Animation, Action, Comedy
Academy Award Nominations
Best Animated Feature
What's to like?
While Shrek might have challenged Pixar's dominance of the box office, I reckon that it was Kung Fu Panda was the first to challenge them from an artistic perspective. The animation is absolutely gorgeous and fantastic to look at - check out the rolling belly of Po during the action scenes or the depth of the film's setting. I also loved the film's use of colour with rich sunrises and cool evenings really coming across. The characters also stand out with each role being played by different and distinctive animals. Teamed up with the A-list vocal cast, this is a very easy film to watch, follow and enjoy.
The other thing the film does well - and the secret to Pixar's early success - was the combination of factors that the whole family will enjoy, young and old. Thankfully, this film strikes the right blend with goofy comedy for kids while the film also gives a nod to older viewers with inventive and imaginative action sequences (sequences that are also genuinely exciting) as well as knowing dialogue adults will pick up on. It's easy to understand why this film sparked a series of sequels, spin-offs and endless merchandise - it is, quite simply, a real blast that is great fun. And for those who worry about martial arts disciplines being disrespected, calm down - the film is a parody of martial arts films but not martial arts themselves. If anything, the martial arts and those who practise them are held in high regard indeed which makes this feel like a genuine martial arts film instead of a chop-socky cartoon.
- The fighting styles used by the Furious Five all match those of their respective animals - Crane, Mantis, Monkey, Viper and Tiger are all actual martial art styles. Po's style of martial arts is based on the Bear style.
- The film took four years to make which involved production designer Raymond Zibach and art director Heng Tang studying kung fu movies and Chinese art. This impressed the Chinese so much that there were government meetings in China discussing why they hadn't produced an animated film of the same quality themselves.
- The film-makers cited Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, House Of Flying Daggers and the somewhat unhinged Kung Fu Hustle as inspirations for this film.
What's not to like?
At the time, the film was pitched into a fierce battle with Pixar's WALL•E, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature instead of this film. I remember the arguments - Kung Fu Panda was funnier and more enjoyable, it was better paced, it was better animated and it was more inventive than Pixar's largely silent sci-fi odyssey. I get those points and some of them are true. This is funnier than WALL•E and is more inclusive, more readily enjoyable because it's easy to understand. However, the animation is not better than WALL•E which contains some genuinely beautiful moments such as a flight through space with the aid of a fire extinguisher, floating in zero gravity - or how about the moment when the camera focus blurs as it chases WALL•E through a supermarket trying to evade a stampede of shopping trolleys.
The other issue I have with Kung Fu Panda is its very simplicity - we've seen countless animations featuring talking animals, even before the advent of CG. It doesn't do anything new while WALL•E felt like the dawn of a new kind of CG film. It had issues, raised political points about the environment and the perils of consumerism. This film, by contrast, features animals doing kung fu - there is a lack of ambition to the film, a sense that it could have been ever better. I highly doubt that sequels Kung Fu Panda 2 or 3 deal with issues in the same way WALL•E does or have the same emotional gut-punch contained in the opening moments of Up.
Should I watch it?
It might not be the most boundary-pushing animation out but Kung Fu Panda is better than most, featuring some gorgeous looking animation and is plenty of fun for viewers young and old. The film's blend of comedy and action is a winning one and Black's charming performance as Po provides the film with a lovable hero at the centre. It closed the gap between DreamWorks Animation and Pixar but their main competition were really pushing themselves and the boundaries of what CG animation could be.
Great For: martial artists, children, families
Not So Great For: the overweight, English bad guys, overly serious cage fighters
What else should I watch?
While DreamWorks Animation have had great success with their Shrek and Kung Fu Panda franchises, other efforts have been slightly disappointing. The Road Of El Dorado was a box office bomb and was followed up with other critical disappoints like Shark Tale and Bee Movie. Of course, the CG animation market is a crowded one these days with multiple studios offering their signature franchises like Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age), Illumination (Despicable Me) and even the old guard themselves, Walt Disney Animation Studios (Frozen or Moana).
But for me, it's the original producers of CG animation that still remain the ones to beat. After all, Pixar were the first to produce an animated feature film in 1995 and have remained hugely popular ever since. For me, their peak years were 2008-2010 when they produced films of not just stunning quality but with real emotional depth. WALL·E is one of my favourite films of all time, a jaw-dropping experience that stuns you with what it's saying and wetting the eyes a bit (even mine!) at the end. Up has its emotional wringer at the beginning instead, a wordless trip through a long and mostly happy marriage until the tragically inevitable. And then there was Toy Story 3, a wonderful climax to the original trilogy (well, until the fourth film came along) that not only entertains and reunites you with your childhood pals but also gets really dark in places, straying into themes that other animations would never dream of.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox