Could Kung Fu Panda 2 and The Tree of Life have anything in common?
Well, they each star half of the world’s most famous mom and dad duo — Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt – but they also share surprisingly similar themes of parenthood and violence, though each approaches those ideas from wildly different directions.
One is a slapstick animated comedy about a martial-arts bear, the other a cosmic art-house musing on the origins of the universe and soul. You wouldn’t expect them to have much in common, but each is about mercy, and when to strike back — if ever.
Raising six little ones, it’s natural for Pitt and Jolie to have parenthood on their minds, and while discussing their movies at the Cannes Film Festival they acknowledged how family influences their work.
“I was a little hesitant about playing the oppressive father,” Pitt said. “I think about everything I do now, ‘My kids are going to see it when they grow up and how are they going to feel? But they know me as a dad,’” he said with a smile. “And I hope they’ll just think I’m a pretty damn good actor.”
In each movie, a parent figure instructs a youngster on how to fight. In the case of Kung Fu Panda 2, it’s heroic — Jack Black’s bumbling black-and-white bear Po and Jolie’s no-nonsense tiger Tigress learn from Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) how only inner peace and self-control can help them thwart an attack on their homeland. Meanwhile, Po unravels the origin of his real parents, and why they left him with his adoptive goose father.
In The Tree of Life, the self-defense training is more dubious, and shocking: Pitt’s 1950s-era father sternly taunts his young boys into taking a swing at him, thinking it will make them tough. Check out a clip from that scene below.
In the movie, written and directed by Terrence Malick, Pitt’s father is a harsh taskmaster, sacrificing his dreams of being a musician to care for his family, but terrorizing them with his own unhappiness and regret. The mother, played by Jessica Chastain, is depicted as sweet, gentle, but also weak and dependent.
“Terry designed it as the mother represents grace and love and all that is pure and good, and the father represents this oppressive nature, the nature that must survive and will choke out another plant in order to do so,” Pitt told the press after The Tree of Life’s first screening. He was clearly joking when asked what he’s like as a father: “I beat my kids regularly. That seems to do the trick. And deprive them of meals.”
If The Tree of Life makes adults think about their own influence as a parent, Kung Fu Panda 2 approaches from the kiddie perspective. Parents may worry about kids learning to karate-chop each other, but Jolie says the movie’s message is about discipline and justice — not aggression.
“I think it’s actually quite against violence,” says Jolie. “They’re not people looking for a fight. They’re people who stop people who are fighting with more aggressive weapons.” Unlike Pitt’s 1950s father, Tigress and Po aren’t goaded into warfare. They’re taught to practice discipline and patience, and when someone turns violence on you, flip it right back on them. But always be merciful.
The last thing Jolie said she wants is for kids to watch and think it’s okay to smack.
“A lot of people who study martial arts know that if you have children who have any kind of aggression one of the best things to do is certainly not to ignore it, but to actually put that child into a martial arts class so they understand their own body, to learn discipline., to learn their own strength and then to harness it,” she tells EW.
“My boys wrestle all the time,” she adds. “They’re two boys, but they’ve been in martial arts classes for a while together and now they bow to each other, they know when to hit the mat [i.e. when they want to quit], they know when to stop wrestling. They have respect. But they’re boys — without that they’re going to want to wrestle, to try things and test themselves. It’s a primal thing. But to keep it in an organized way where it shows respect and discipline is fantastic.”
Kung Fu Panda 2 and The Tree of Life each open next weekend.
So, double feature then?
Follow EW’s Anthony Breznican on Twitter: @Breznican