Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.
I say that because I can’t call myself a Jack Black fan. There are times when I like him. Those times are limited to when he’s given a part that suits his style and personality. High Fidelity is a good example of this. A lot of times, he leaves me pretty cold, though. But, as it turns out, Po the Panda seems to have been written with Jack Black in mind. In fact, I can’t think of someone else doing the role.
Po (Jack Black) is a panda, the adopted son of a goose (James Hong), who runs a noodle restaurant. Po doesn’t want to run a noodle restaurant, though. He dreams of kung fu and become a great warrior. While he dreams of befriending the Furious Five, the five greatest kung fu masters in China, word comes that the greatest criminal of the age, Tai Lung (Ian McShane) may return. In desperation, the teacher of the kung fu masters, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) determines to award the Dragon Scroll to someone who will use it to become an invincible kung fu warrior. At least this is the plan, under the tutelage of his master, Oogway (Randall Duk Kim). Naturally, Po tries to see the ceremony, and (you can see where this is going based on the name of the film), is named as the Dragon Warrior, either by fortune, luck, chance, or Oogway’s planning. And so, the bulk of the film is Po learning to believe in his own abilities, and Shifu learning to believe in them as well.
Kung Fu Panda has some inspired casting decisions. It would be easy to say that they are criminally underused, because most of them aren’t used at all to their full potential, but that’s because they are tangential to the story. Po and Shifu really are the story here. The Furious Five, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Viper (Lucy Liu), don’t have a lot of lines. It’s kind of a shame because there’s real talent there, but having them do a lot more of the film would take away from the story that’s being told.
What really works here, though, is that Kung Fu Panda stays true to the source of its inspiration. There are a couple of pivotal scenes in this. The first comes at the end of Po’s training. Po and Shifu battle over a bowl of dumplings. Finally offered a chance to eat (Po’s training is all food-motivated), Shifu instead eats all but a last dumpling, and a battle ensues for it. This is a fun scene, but also contains pearls of Eastern philosophy about the nature of freedom, desire, and even of the self. I’m not sure I can fully describe the scene’s meaning, but I’m fairly sure I grok it. The other is the content of the Dragon Scroll itself, which is explained fully later in the film. My guess is that most adults get what the content of the scroll means without the full explanation, and that was added for the kids.
This is also a very smart movie. The dumpling scene is duplicated at the end in the battle between Po and Tai Lung. It’s also very funny in a number of places. I can’t imagine a kid watching this and not being wildly entertained by both the story and the action. Come to think of it, I think most adults will be entertained by it as well.
It would have been incredibly easy to make Kung Fu Panda sappy and dumb, but the writers were smart enough to make it a hell of a lot more. It even ends with a series of really good jokes that play with genre and with the identities of the characters.
Finally, and this is important, the story is smart enough to respect the characters, and particularly the character of Po. It would be easy for the film to be loaded down with fat jokes at Po’s expense, and there are a couple of them, but even most of these are good natured or play as one of Po’s strengths. Po, ultimately, is valuable for who he is despite physical appearance. It’s a nice message, and one that is frequently absent Hollywood fare.
If you’ve somehow missed this, track it down. It doesn’t disappoint, save that it’s not long enough for as much fun as it is.
Why to watch Kung Fu Panda: It’s far smarter and sweeter than you’d think it could be.
Why not to watch: You’re humorless and sad.