Kung Fu Panda set DreamWorks Animation on a path of legendary awesomeness. After something as bizarre as Bee Movie, DreamWorks needed a sure fire hit to fully earn back their lost appreciation as a computer animation studio. Kung Fu Panda sounded like a joke the second you heard the title. Yet just like our unlikely panda hero, the success of Kung Fu Panda was no accident. The original intention was to make a parody of martial arts films with anthropomorphic animals. Like the great masters before him, the director saw the potential to tell a genuine wuxia hero’s journey that honored Chinese tradition.
It just happened to star animals. Unlike some anthropomorphic animal movies, Kung Fu Panda is totally warranted in using an all animal world. I’ve always been a big fan of martial arts, but I hadn’t seen many movies centered on the subject. Kung Fu Panda is the perfect gateway for children to become entranced by kung fu. I was 13 years old in 2008 and there was no way my brother and I would miss out on what was sure to be a blast. Kung Fu Panda was so awesome that it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature and became the highest grossing non-sequel for DreamWorks at the time…
Po trains with Master Shifu
Kung Fu Panda is the best of both worlds for DreamWorks. It was comedic, but there are no pop culture references or Disney jabs. Martial arts movies were an influence, but this level of dedication to action hadn’t been done before. The breathtaking computer animation and respect for ancient tradition even earned Kung Fu Panda acclaim in China. Not bad for a predominantly American production with primarily American voice actors. The animation wasn’t just limited to CGI, because the opening establishes the mood with a beautiful traditionally animated sequence meant to resemble a Chinese painting. The Valley of Peace is a peaceful Ancient Chinese setting mostly inhabited by Chinese animals such as rabbits, pigs, and geese. Each of them wearing appropriate Chinese attire.
Our hero is the most unlikely warrior imaginable. Po is a big fat panda with an intense fanboy appreciation for kung fu. After his less than inspired role in Shark Tale, Kung Fu Panda was exactly what Jack Black needed in his 2008 career resurgence. Jack Black’s hilarious enthusiasm was just right for Po, but he also gave the panda more depth than you’d expect from a comedian like him. Po dreams about being the legendary Dragon Warrior even though his father wants him to run the family business. They trick you into thinking he’s a panda, but Po’s father is actually a cheerful goose named Mr. Ping. Ping loves his son as much as he loves making his secret ingredient noodles. The funny and criminally underappreciated James Hong is one of at least four Oriental actors in the movie.
The center of all kung fu action is the Jade Palace. A sacred hall where the greatest warriors in all the land come to train under Master Shifu. A role filled by the critically acclaimed Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman isn’t someone I’d immediately associate with kung fu, but his experience brought great complexity to the stern Shifu. Despite his anti-panda sentiment, most people forget Shifu is actually a red panda. The wisest member of the Jade Palace is the elderly tortoise Master Oogway. Randall Duk Kim voices the ancient mentor who envisions the return of a deadly foe. Leading to a ceremony where the Dragon Warrior is chosen. Everyone including Po is shocked when he’s the one chosen. Shifu doesn’t believe a flabby panda can become the greatest warrior in history, but Ooway knows what he’s doing.
The Furious Five are the most clever use of anthropomorphic animals in the movie. Since each of them embody a different animal style of kung fu. The Furious Five are easily the coolest characters with all their high energy martial arts experience. Like Jack Black, Angelina Jolie got her Shark Tale redemption as the fierce and highly dedicated Master Tigress. Next to Shifu, Tigress is the most vocally against Po training among them. Jolie really captures her warrior spirit and longing to prove herself. The rest of the Furious Five are made up of 2 Chinese actors and 2 comedians. Jackie Chan himself is the high energy humor loving Master Monkey. He’s a monkey of a few words, but a great fighter on the team. Lucy Liu brings slithery sweetness to Master Viper. She’s probably the least hostile team member towards Po. David Cross uses his trademark sarcasm for the flighty Master Crane. The first team member to directly interact with Po, but it doesn’t go too well. The least likely Furious Five member is Seth Rogen as the small Master Mantis. You get what you expect from the laugh prone Rogen, but every warrior is beneficial to the team.
The Furious Five was so interesting that they got a short film detailing their unique origin stories called Secrets of the Furious Five. The slapstick that comes from Po’s training is hilarious, but a real warrior never quits. Not even when the main villain escapes his inescapable prison. Ian McShane is excellent as the extremely intimidating snow leopard Tai Lung. He was once raised by Shifu like a son, but his heart turned to black when Oogway rejected him as Dragon Warrior. His prison is heavily fortified with thousands of rhino guards and Tai Lung as the only prisoner. The late Michael Clarke Duncan makes the most of his small role as a guard who shows a Dan Folger voiced messenger goose every precaution. Kung Fu Panda is very funny, but action is the real highlight of the movie. The stylised, fast paced, yet cartoon friendly kung fu sequences are edge of your seat excitement.
He may be the villain, but Tai Lung’s escape is a pure spectacle. The Furious Five vs. Tai Lung is an epic bridge showdown that practically defies the laws of physics. Meanwhile, Shifu makes a breakthrough with Po when he realizes food is a great source of motivation. You really come to believe Po’s journey as he fights for his dumpling and masters panda style. When Tai Lung nerve strikes the Five, it’s finally time for Po to unlock the secrets of the Dragon Warrior scroll. It appears to be blank, but Po’s father helps him to realize there is no secret ingredient. You need only to believe you’re special. Master Shifu vs. Tai Lung is a brutal fight between mentor and mentee that only ends when Po eventually climbs up the stairs.
You wouldn’t expect a fierce snow leopard to be a match for a lazy panda, but Po vs. Tai Lung is a hilariously unconventional fight that’s very evenly matched. Po proves himself by mastering the Wuxi Finger Hold and conquers his enemy with a final “Skadoosh.” In the end, Po’s dream comes true as he’s honored by the Furious Five and accepted by a much more light hearted Shifu. An after-credit scene (that I often forget about) shows them bonding over a meal and reveals a symbolic peach tree that begins to sprout. Of course I’d be sad if they didn’t use the always catchy song “Kung Fu Fighting” at the end. A song normally used as a punchline, is given an honorable cover by CeeLo Green. Kung Fu Panda is more awesome than DreamWorks could’ve expected.
The Furious Five
Followed by: Kung Fu Panda 2