Ok. I have to be honest. I tend to have a hard time defending this film. Well, these films. Since in this article I will be talking about the Kung Fu Panda film series as a whole. The movies get pretty decent ratings on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, and I know that they were pretty well-received films. In addition to this, they’ve won several Annie Awards, and two have been nominated for an Academy Award. But I still have a problem describing why I like the films to others. I think I understand why this series can’t be taken seriously. It’s title is Kung Fu Panda; right of the bat that sounds ridiculous. It is also animated by DreamWorks, whose computer animated movies even I tend to scoff at, especially from an animation standpoint. Add to the fact that Jack Black voices the main character and you just have to roll your eyes at the concept.
It is true that the Kung Fu Panda films aren’t necessarily good films, but they aren’t bad films either. If anything, I find them pretty entertaining. And to be honest, with how the movies present their character arcs, I am able to take them fairly seriously as well. I said before that I tend to scoff at DreamWorks animated films. This is because for the most part, I see DreamWorks’ attempt at computer animation as a cheep and easy way to shuffle out kids films with little to no time or effort. This bias of mine changed drastically when the studio came out with How to Train Your Dragon and its sequels, which were animated wildly better than their usual work, and told a simple yet deep story with good characters and subtle yet heavy character development. The Kung Fu Panda films comes nowhere near the excellency of the Dragon films, but I do see a hint of the effort and improvement in Kung Fu Panda that would eventually be seen in How to Train Your Dragon two years later. It is the effort here that is important to me.
The animation of Kung Fu Panda is pretty striking when compared to similar animal-centric DreamWorks films like Madagascar. Kung Fu Panda actually animates the fur on our mammalian characters. The series even improves its animation as you get into the 2nd and 3rd films. The lighting and shading are really well done, and there are parts that I’d even say are quite beautiful. For example, look at the petals flowing off of this peach tree during a particularly spiritual moment in the film.
Being a film about martial arts, Kung Fu Panda, also does a really good job at movement. The fight scenes, though extremely over the top and physics-defying, still incorporate natural looking movement. The battles are pretty dynamic and it is easy for the eye to move along with the characters and to see how the characters move. Through its visuals, the martial art tropes really come across, making the action feel like a classic kung fu movie.
Kung Fu Panda has a pretty simple premise. Each film presents a dangerous enemy which our heroes must defeat. The first movie is about our titular panda, named Po (Jack Black), who is chosen as the “dragon warrior” and must join a group of warriors known as The Furious Five, taught by a red panda named Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Though the first movie revolves around Po being introduced to kung fu and becoming the dragon warrior, a lot of the character development is focused on Master Shifu. The gruff voice of Dustin Hoffman, fits the character’s no-nonsense personality quite well. It’s the second movie that actually focuses more on Po and his past. In addition to this, it develops his friendship with Furious Five member, Tigress (Angelina Jolie). The second film also has a rather well written villain who is an albino peacock named Shen (Gary Oldman). The third film, gets a bit more spiritual with the addition of “chi” in fights. It also incorporates some heartwarming father-son moments between Po, his adoptive father (voiced by James Hong), and his biological father (voiced by Bryan Cranston); so father-father-son moments? The only thing I have an issue with in this film’s cast is that between developing Po, Master Shifu, and the villain in each film, there is little time to develop or even have much screen time for the rest of the Furious Five (aside from Tigress). Which is a shame because it would be interesting to see more of how animals such as a snake and a praying mantis would do kung fu. They are also voiced by rather talented actors. You’ve got Jackie Chan as Monkey, Lucy Liu as Viper, David Cross as Crane, and Seth Rogan as Mantis. It would’ve been nice to see more of them. Overall, for the characters that the movies decide to focus on, this film series does a pretty decent job at character development and character interaction.
Finally, let’s talk about Jack Black as Po. Jack Black is usually pretty famous for playing, well, Jack Black in anything he’s in. His ridiculous acting and complete lack of subtlety usually gain him a lot of flack as an actor. Even in Kung Fu Panda, where he plays an animated panda, there’s no doubt that the character of Po is Jack Black. In fact, in a lot of scenes it seems as though they modeled Po’s face after Jack Black’s crazy facial expressions. In a weird way, this actually works to film’s and the character’s advantage. The character of Po comes from a more humble background and has always looked up to the Furious Five. But when he gets the opportunity to train alongside his heroes, he acts appropriately enthusiastic and excited. Which is kind of how I think most people who enjoy martial arts movies would feel if they all of a sudden could learn martial arts with people like Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. Though a lot of it is played for laughs, Po’s enthusiasm is relateable and endearing. In a way, that is why I also can’t help but like Jack Black. I’m not a big fan of him or his movies or anything. But Jack Black is one of those actors where you can always tell that he’s having fun doing what he is doing. You know that he picks his roles because he enjoys them, and that enjoyment certainly comes across the screen in these films. I can’t help but respect an actor for that, even if that actor is someone as absurd as Jack Black.
I can fully understand that kung fu movies, or Jack Black, isn’t for everyone. The concept is quite silly, as is the humor. But for me, these are films that I enjoy watching. The first Kung Fu Panda film was one of the first times I saw DreamWorks really putting effort into their computer animation. The movie was also one of the first times I saw the studio trying to create a more meaningful story, in a kid’s movie, rather than a story just for laughs. Not only that, but the creators continue to put in that thought and effort into their sequels. And for those things, at least, I really have to give the movies credit.