Would Hollywood make Kung Fu Panda today?
The summer of 2008 broke history, and rebuilt it. America suffered through a bitter presidential election on the road to a globewrecking financial crisis. In theaters, cinematic generations were rising — and falling. Superheroes, Will Smith, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Emma Stone, Mike Myers, Sisterhoods and Step Brothers, Batman, and ABBA, adaptations of TV shows we still tweet about, new installments of movie franchises studios won’t stop rebooting: everything Hollywood was before, alongside everything it still is.
In our weekly column Two Thousand Late, we’ll explore the big hits and curious flops from a summer that has never really ended. Last week: Sex and the City and the movie. Next week: The Happening happens! This week: EW TV critic Darren Franich on the movie where the panda learns Kung Fu.
Everyone can pick their favorite Pixar movie. The impossibility of finding a definitive choice is part of the fun. You could argue in every direction: Finding Nemo? Any Toy Story? Who’s the hipster stumping for Inside Out? Who’s the nihilist stumping for Wall-E? The acclaimed animation studio has produced an embarrassment of riches, soon-to-be 20 films of very high quality, occasional calamitous Cars crash only reconfirming the crybaby bliss of Coco.
A weird game, by comparison, to pick your favorite DreamWorks Animation movie. There are almost twice as many; they’re about half as good. But Kung Fu Panda has always been my choice. (The Shrek sequels ruined Shrek; I don’t really count Chicken Run, produced by Aardman in glorious claymation.) Panda turns 10 years old on Wednesday, and it still feels like the most exultant example of the DreamWorks model.
It is a familiar story with an unfamiliar hero: Po (voiced by Jack Black), a panda who works in a noodle shop. His journey is sarcastic and sweet in equal measure. And the film’s key elements reflect DreamWorks’ most compelling trait. Under the stewardship of former CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio had an uncanny knack for taking stuff that used to be cool for teenagers and making it cool for pre-teens.
This sounds simple enough, but it requires unusual trend-spotting insight. The layers of Kung Fu Panda‘s 2008 reflect far-flung cross currents of the decade preceding. Jack Black as a Tenacious D-era grunge-comic icon. Angelina Jolie as a razor-eyed action hero. The burgeoning American fandom for martial arts cinema, a craze that ensured at least one person in every college dorm circa 2003 had a pirated copy of Hero and one other person in that same dorm would explain at great length why Crouching Tiger was secretly inauthentic.
So here’s a movie with the voice of Jackie Chan and the voice of David Cross: What maniac would assume all these tastes would go great together? This seemed to be the secret ingredient in DreamWorks’ Secret Ingredient Soup: yesterday’s R ratings refracted into playful PG. Mixed well, the end result could be a product with infinite demographic appeal: childless adults intrigued by a new version of what they loved in high school, childful adults looking for something kid-appropriate but parent-friendly, actual human children who won’t overthink kids’ movies until they’re grown up.
Because Kung Fu Panda is an animated film, this feeling of cultural collision isn’t always obvious. Animation is timeless, even if convincing digital fur always looks plastic after a couple of years. So by way of demonstrating what I’m talking about, here is Kung Fu Panda‘s tie-in music video, featuring a cheeseball 1974 disco song reimagined by the most exciting singer of 2006 and the most exciting comedic performer of 2003.
If this sounds more algorithmic than creative, well, it very much is. But the DreamWorks model feels more influential than Pixar’s—easier to copy a formula when it’s so clearly a formula—and if Kung Fu Panda has aged well, it’s partly because it has a definitive sense of its own style. Co-directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson have a fervent (if shallow) love for wuxia films, hyperbolizing certain elements of martial arts cinema without edging into obvious gags. Long shots emphasize lush landscapes. They’re postcard notions of China-hood, but what postcards! Cherry blossoms. Oceans of haze around distant mountaintops. The peculiar stillness of Panda‘s talking animals, who move with weight and grace (in between anti-gravity fight scenes).
The very bad guy is Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a snow leopard. When he escapes from his imprisonment, the camera cuts to an extreme wide angle. A million arrows have been fired at him—a near-direct quote from Zhang Yimou’s Hero, snagged by Zack Snyder for the trailer moment from 300, but unquestionably improved when restaged via glowing red-neon arrows and a McShane-accented snow leopard.
There were two more Kung Fu Panda movies, a TV series, diminishing returns. Would this film be made today? There could be cries of cultural appropriation, and I have to imagine some brilliant loud corner of social media would declare that Stephen Chow did the whole “wackadoo martial arts insane-o-com” idea better with Kung Fu Hustle.
And something in the character layout feels creaky now. The film’s central power dynamic is complicated, split along unusually precise age demarcations. Sage old Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) has his own sager, older mentor, Grand Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim). Young Po winds up battling Shifu’s former student, Tai Lung, seen in flashback as a cute young orphan, now on a rampage after 20 years on lockdown. That pleasantly expansive age range is its own kind of lockdown, though: spiritual fathers, sons, and brothers playing their dudely games. Jolie voices Tigress, a kung fu badass who is unquestionably better trained for heroism than Po and who therefore is not allowed to be as heroic as Po—an uncanny echo of her other 2008 summer role in Wanted, where she was the gun-twirling badass waiting patiently for milquetoast James McAvoy to become the real gun-twirling badass.
In one respect, though, Hollywood has never really stopped making Kung Fu Panda. The key idea underpinning the film is that Po is, essentially, a meta-hero: a devotee of kung fu, stoked to meet the local martial arts masters the way kids who swapped Drunken Master VHS tapes would’ve been stoked to meet Jackie Chan. “You’re so much bigger than your action figures!” Po tells the Furious Five, a kid at his own personal Comic-Con. “It’s just, I’m such a big fan.”
Po is a kung fu fanboy who gets plucked from obscurity to become a kung fu hero. His journey is towards self-realization, but it’s also initially an escape. “Every time you threw a brick at my head, or said I smelled, it hurt!” he tells Shifu. “But it could never hurt more than every day of my life, just being me.”
Po’s sweet melancholy, and his girth—cruelly insulted by his kung fu betters—suggests something of Lost‘s Hurley, the decade’s genial avatar for heroic regular-guy niceness amidst epic-hero fantasy. It anticipates our own era, where a whole Spider-Man movie is about how much Spider-Man wants to be like Iron Man. Everything is “awesome” for Po, six years pre-“Everything Is Awesome.”
Like The Lego Movie, Kung Fu Panda lands on the very kind non-message of most movies like this. Po’s not a hero, he’s a regular nice guy—and his regular niceness is paradoxically what makes him a hero. It’s pleasant, inoffensive, a deconstructed Hero’s Journey that is actually just the Hero’s Journey. Late in the film, Po’s father (wonderful James Hong) reveals the family’s great mystery to his son: The secret ingredient of the Secret Ingredient Soup…is nothing. A very serene idea—and the most confessional thing DreamWorks Animation ever made.
Complete Summer 2008 Schedule:
May 2: Iron Man and Made of Honor
May 9: Speed Racer
May 16: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
May 22: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull
May 30: Sex and the City
June 6: Kung Fu Panda
June 13: The Happening
June 20: The Love Guru
June 27: Wall-E and Wanted
July 2: Hancock
July 11: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
July 18: Mamma Mia and The Dark Knight
July 25: Step Brothers
Aug. 1: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Aug. 6: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and Pineapple Express
Aug. 13: Tropic Thunder
Aug. 15: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Aug. 22: The House Bunny