Kung Fu Panda

14th July 2008 – 8.45 am

I previously mentioned in passing seeing a trailer for Kung Fu Panda, and in finding out the anthropomorphic tiger in the film is in fact a tigress that I had to see the film. The trailer looked jolly enough, although the film didn't look to be much more than a simple kids film with some animals kung fu fighting their way through some jokes, so when the opportunity arose to watch the film I was happy to see it but set my expectations low. This meant I was not prepared when the film turned out to be at least as good an animated feature as The Incredibles in terms of characters, drama and comedy.

The story seems simple enough, but it is wonderfully layered with enough depth to keep anyone engaged with the events unfolding, and is not the usual or expected Hollywood-tale of an underachieving dreamer becoming a hero. In this case, it is shown that the hero was always there and just needed to be nurtured and brought to the surface. It is quite easy to mistake the film as being a standard effort to train an underdog to become a master, to give a message that you can achieve anything if you try, but there are many clues and hints that Po always had this gift and it was his destiny to achieve something great.

Destiny and belief are major themes in Kung Fu Panda. The villain, Tai Lung, believes it is his destiny to have the power of the Dragon Scroll and thus become the Dragon Warrior. Master Oogway tells Master Shifu that Tai Lung will escape his prison, but it is only because Oogway tells Shifu that Tai Lung escapes. Tigress believes that she was to be the Dragon Warrior. Shifu believes he is to train the Dragon Warrior and doesn't believe it is Po, and has to reconcile this with his belief in Master Oogway. Po wants to believe he can be a great kung fu hero but simultaneously can't believe a noodle cook can be one. Characters have an overt destiny they believe in, and one they attempt to fulfil, and everyone has a true destiny that is fulfilled by the end of the film.

There is also a wonderful and completely understated commentary on good and evil. Compare the reactions of Tai Lung and Tigress when both are denied the Dragon Scroll. Tai Lung devastates the village in an effort to take the scroll by force, Tigress goes to battle her mortal foe to prove she really was the chosen one. Tai Lung's destructive actions don't appear to him to be contrary to how the Dragon Warrior would act, and his actions coupled with his blindness to their inappropriateness is a clear indication that he isn't destined to be the Dragon Warrior. When compared to Tigress's dedication to her training and belief in herself we are shown the difference between good and evil, and although Tigress wasn't destined to be the Dragon Warrior we are shown her fulfilling her destiny through her choice of actions.

We are shown a lot in the film. That is, we are not told what is happening but shown. There are no flashbacks to earlier scenes, instead we are trusted to remember them when they become important. We aren't told overtly why certain actions or conversations occur, just presented with them and trusted to make sense. It makes the characters and story seem more believable, with the exposition coming from the characters themselves and forced from the script.

To help it all along there is plenty of humour in the film, and it is never misplaced. Jack Black gives a brilliant performance as Po, bringing his vigorous spirit to the character and coupling it with a childlike sense of wonder to give the humour a gentle touch, one that never seems incongruous with the gravity of the scene. The jokes are natural and genuinely funny, and the humour always feels human and not from a cartoon, which is perhaps quite a feat for a film featuring entirely anthropomorphic animals. The whole film feels smooth, with the truly serious moments never interrupted by some goofy slapstick[1], yet other moments of gravity are broken by a naturally comedic line or action.

I cannot praise Kung Fu Panda quite enough, at least not without detailing every moment that made me smile, laugh, or care for the characters and their situation. Every character is wonderfully developed and made to feel real, with performances that are all strong and bring everything to life. The story is deceptively deep and confounds expectations of the genre whilst keeping a strong pace throughout, and the humour is witty, clever and never forced. And although Tigress is a little mean near the start it is understandable and she is just finding her way. I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a film on so many different levels, and have been reliving moments and scenes from Kung Fu Panda for most of the weekend after exiting the cinema. This is a wonderful, beautiful film that deserves to be appreciated. I may well find myself watching it again in the cinema soon.

[1] Okay, there is one moment where this happens, but it keeps within context and is eventually important to the plot.

  1. One Response to “Kung Fu Panda”

  2. I hadn't read the review in Total Film before seeing Kung Fu Panda, and read it after coming home. For some reason, the reviewer was compelled to compare the film directly to Wall-E, believing Kung Fu Panda to be inferior simply because it isn't made by Pixar.

    It is this biased attitude that should have stopped me being surprised when the reviewer then stated that Master Oogway had a 'senile moment' in selecting Po as the Dragon Warrior, despite all the clues up to and after that point that showed Po was always destined to be the Dragon Warrior and that Oogway was clear in his choice.

    I don't think the reviewer had any interest in reviewing the film critically and had decided his opinion before starting the film, failing to see how the plot was not generic and that there was far more substance than might have been expected. It's a disappointing review for its closed-minded approach.

    By pjharvey on Jul 14, 2008

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