Film Notes: Kung Fu Panda (2008)

I saw this last night and was rather disappointed with the story. This movie has gotten something like 88% at, which is in a region previously reserved for Studio Ghibli and Pixar movies (or Disney, if you’re old enough to remember a time when they didn’t suck). So naturally, I had my expectations high enough that anything short of a beautiful, sensitively made film that delivered the old “if you believe, you can do anything” message in new ways was going to feel like a waste of 10 dollars.

Kung Fu Panda, sadly, is not that ‘something new’. And it is very flawed, structurally. I think they were just hoping that the animation and inherent panda cuteness would make up for the fact that the writers never managed to solve the problem of how to have an unfit panda convincingly best the world’s greatest warrior in combat, apart from using his ass/belly as a bouncy surface. As a result, the film looks like this:

2 minutes of Panda being a bad-ass (dream sequence)
is followed by
55 minutes of Panda shown as well-meaning but incompetent as a fighter
followed by
5 minutes of his teacher having an epiphany
followed by
1 minute of training montage
followed by
10 minutes of Panda being a full-fledged kungfu expert
followed by
10 minutes of doubt
followed by
5 minutes of unbelievable, unjustified competence
followed by

I know I sound like a picky asshole who can’t just relax and enjoy a summer blockbuster for kids, but the bar has been raised by others that came before, and so Kung Fu Panda has to work a little harder. In ways, it is the perfect example of Dreamworks’ approach to animation, and offers several reasons why they consistently fail to deliver something as timeless as say, oh… any Pixar film? These include: loud, brash characters who don’t change so much as they do unlock their artificially stunted potential that everybody else saw from the beginning. Pop culture jokes (admittedly fewer here). Uneven pacing and plot progression. Disregard for the passage of time – and this is a big one for me.

In order to build believability, you have to let certain events breathe. Compared to something like Ratatouille, Kung Fu Panda occurs almost in real-time. It honestly feels like everything happens overnight. The result of such carelessness is a lack of drama and audience emphathy for the characters. How are you supposed to feel that Po (the panda) is really ready for his challenge when you’re given at least 30 times as much evidence of his unreadiness as his 1 minute training montage? Classic heroes were products of sustained hardship. Rocky had the heart, and even Remy from Ratatouille had the nose and talent from the beginning. Po, in contrast, is only shown having a fan’s interest in the history of kungfu. It’s like saying little Johnny Redneck by ringside can throw it down with a pro wrestler after a weekend of training with Hulk Hogan.

Animation is a feature film industry where you have far more time and money to get things right, and so directorial failures are even more disappointing. I imagine the guys at Pixar (and I’ve read a little to this effect) hammer the hell out of every detail for their films in pre-production. They’re not afraid to throw away great scenes in order to find even greater ones. The results haven’t just been the best 3D animated films; they pretty much legitimized the form. Kung Fu Panda has a couple of dead-air scenes that I think John Lasseter wouldn’t even wipe his ass with.

One last thing. I’ve had Pixar movies move me to tears. Those guys know how to write emotionally effective scenes that don’t feel like manipulation. And when the time comes to deliver an inspirational message, they know how to show rather than tell. WALL·E pretty much proves it by having two non-speaking leads. Kung Fu Panda on the other hand relies on lines as false as fortune cookie proverbs.

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