Monday, November 2, 2009

Kung Fu Panda - DreamWorks' Turning Point?


Prior a week ago, I had never seen Kung Fu Panda.

I know, I know. It’s not something I’m proud of. I could say that previous DreamWorks animated films – particularly Shrek – hadn’t impressed me or that the trailers made it look like little more than “fat guy does martial arts.” But I had the positive reviews of numerous critics and animation fans to go on, plus the fact that the film swept the 2008 Annie Awards. So why did it take me so long to actually watch the movie? I can only chalk it up to my own bad judgment. Because not only was I missing out on a good animated movie, I was missing what DreamWorks Animation really had to offer.


The basic plot of Kung Fu Panda is a classic “unlikely hero” story. Po, the panda of the film’s title, does not start out as a martial arts master. He’s more of a fanboy. He knows all the stories of the great warriors, has all the posters on his bedroom walls, collects the action figures, and dreams of being a kung fu master. But he has neither the training nor the physique to make his dream anything more than that. It seems that Po’s fate will be to take over the noodle restaurant run by his father, a character so different from Po that he is literally another species. But Po’s life is changed forever when he is chosen to become the next Dragon Warrior, a legendary hero who will protect the valley from a coming threat.

What keeps the audience sympathetic to Po is the fact that he realizes that he is not cut out to be a master of kung fu. It may be his dream, but he has no delusions of greatness, no secret belief that he really could be the great warrior he wishes he was if someone just gave him the chance. As the film gets underway, all Po wants is to see his heroes, the Furious Five, in action and watch one of them get picked to be the Dragon Warrior. He ends up winning the title himself completely by accident. It’s not an honor sought out or wants. He fully understands that he is out of his league and that the Five and Master Shifu – who is charged with training Po – don’t want him around. As he later confesses, Po stays not out of some belief that he has what it takes to be the Dragon Warrior, but because he hopes that Master Shifu can mold him into something better than what he is now, something even the slightest bit closer to the great hero Po longs to be. Because Po is so acutely aware of his own inadequacies, he remains likeable as he tries to live up to these new expectations of him and his own dreams.


Fans of martial arts movies will find a lot of familiar material inn Kung Fu Panda. There’s the strict teacher, his former prize pupil who turned to evil, the ancient, wise master whose passing force the other characters to step up and become heroes, an unconventional style of training, and so on. What’s impressive is how the film keeps these staples of the genre from feeling like clichés by giving them a specificity driven by the characters themselves. For example, Tai Lung was not merely Shifu’s best student before his lust for power drove him to turn against Shifu and the villagers; he was also Shifu’s adopted son. Shifu was devastated by Tai Lung’s betrayal and eventual imprisonment, which explains why he is now such a harsh and unforgiving teacher. That in turn sets up for Shifu’s evolving relationship with Po. In finding an effective method to teach Po kung fu, Shifu rediscovers the joy of teaching and truly believing in his student.

The story also manages to avoid several clichés. Though Po’s father doesn’t completely understand Po’s love of kung fu, there is not subplot where Po has to earn his father’s respect or convince him that kung fu is as worthwhile a pursuit as noodles. Additionally, Po is not an incompetent cook. He may not be a great waiter (he can barely fit between the tables), but his homemade soup impresses even the Furious Five. Po could have been a good cook, even a great one, but he isn’t passionate about noodles the way he is about kung fu. By showing that Po is capable at something, the story avoids getting distracted by a secondary thread about Po needing to prove that he can become accomplished at anything and is able to focus on Po following his dream. I was pleasantly surprised that the film did not force a romance between Po and Tigress of the Furious Five. She is the character most irritated by his presence in the beginning and comes to respect him in the end, but that’s it. After so many animated films that insist on including a love story regardless of whether the film really needs one, it’s quite refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t have that requirement.


Even the jokes about Po’s weight are actually treated with some degree of restraint. Yes, the film makes it clear that Po is a big, fat panda, a nervous eater by his own admission. And yes, Master Shifu eventually realizes that the best way to teach Po kung fu is to use food. But many of the jokes at Po’s expense come from characters who are actively trying to be mean to him. Shifu’s use of food in Po’s training is successful not because Po is completely obsessed with food to the point of insanity, but because food give him a distraction that keeps him from overthinking what he’s doing. When Po is finally able to grab a dumpling from him master after a length sparring match, Po tosses his prize back to Shifu and says with a smile “I’m not hungry.” This movie represent a breakthrough for DreamWorks Animation in part because of the excellent balance between humor and drama and because the humor comes mainly from the characters and their situations rather than easy parodies, pop culture references, and fart jokes.

The character animation and design strikes me as a huge step up from the previous DreamWorks films I have seen. Instead of trying to create completely realistic characters, Kung Fu Panda embraces a more stylized cartoony aesthetic for its cast. The designs are very appealing, both distinct from one another and stylisticly similar. No viewer would ever confuse Po with Tigress or Monkey or Tai Lung, yet they all still feel like they come from the same world, belong in the same movie. The believability of a character like Po comes partly from his convincing fur texture and the well render cloth of his pants, but owes more to the character touches in his animation that make him feel like a real individual. This includes everything from the more obvious aspects of the character: his exhausted panting and bent forward catching his breath posture after climbing the numerous steps to the Jade Palace or the way his ample flab rolls around as he moves, to smaller moments: a subtle change of expression or the way he wipes his hand off on his chest. Since the characters are various kinds of animals, they are obviously going to move in very different ways, which helps to keep the film’s many fight scenes entertaining. Where the movie excels is in making the characters’ actions and movements reflect not just what kind of animals they are, but what kind of individuals they are.


The film’s overall look is very pleasing to the eye. The environments set us firmly in the semi-mythical China of martial arts films, with its sweeping landscapes, mountaintops rising out of the mists, and distinctive architecture. Color and lighting support the mood of each scene. Every scene is built on solid principles of design and storytelling that make it greatly satisfying to watch.

Kung Fu Panda does not break any new ground for animation. It is not the first movie to star anthropomorphic animals and animated them well, nor is it likely to be the last. Few viewers will be truly surprised to find out that Po does eventually save the day. If any new computer animation techniques were invented for this film, the effect is too subtle for most filmgoers – me included – to notice. What Kung Fu Panda does show is how effective it can be to simply tell a good story with strong animation and engaging characters. The movie strikes the balance between light comedy and meaningful, serious moments that had previously eluded DreamWorks. It presents its important concepts and themes clearly, but avoids beating the audience over the head with them. It neither gets lost in its own self importance, nor mocks itself to the point where viewers feel distanced from the characters and story. In short, it is a solid, entertaining film, a kind that I hope DreamWorks will continue to make.

All images in this article are copyright Dreamworks.

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