Thursday, March 02, 2017

The Way of the Panda

I had never previously seen any film in the Kung Fu Panda series, but a while back I started at the beginning to see if I'd missed out on anything great.

Though the original movie is less than a decade old (released in 2008), it already feels a touch dated for a variety of reasons. First, computer animation has progressed in leaps and bounds over the last nine years. Kung Fu Panda doesn't look "bad" by any stretch, but it's lacking in some of the subtle details, the extra polish, the enhanced capabilities of what several studios routinely deliver today. If this movie's story was up to the standards of, say, classic Pixar, this criticism might not even rate a mention. But this could be a preview of how an audience might receive some of the more recent, "average" Pixar movies a decade down the line: movies like Brave or Monsters University.

Second, and more noticeable in my mind, is that Kung Fu Panda is an artifact of the "star driven" era of animated features. Look back on the beginning of "Disney renaissance" of the 90s; they starred relative unknowns. Then came the age where major stars headlined animated features just as they would live action movies. Things seem to be pulling away from that a bit now; movies like Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and The Good Dinosaur certainly cast established actors with esteemed careers, but the movies don't hinge on you coming to see that A-lister you love rendered in pixel form.

Not Kung Fu Panda. It feels like it was either written top to bottom for this exact cast of actors, or that the script was extensively altered to fit the cast they put together. Jack Black IS Jack Black in this movie.... but he's hardly the only one hired to provide a voice exactly as it normally sounds. Dustin Hoffman, Ian McShane, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, and David Cross are all playing perfectly in type, with Angelina Jolie as the only cast member you might not have recognized simply by closing your eyes.

This doesn't make Kung Fu Panda a bad movie, but it does add to the ways in which it's awfully recognizable. It's a standard "chosen one needs to learn how to be the chosen one" story that could only be new to the children who are its target audience (and maybe not even for some of them). All the beats prescribed by Joseph Campbell and the "Save the Cat" school of screenwriting are here. It's quite rote.

But it is also funny, and more than occasionally. Po (the titular panda) has an earnest quality that fosters a lot of goodwill, and sets up for some good "fanboy" humor. There are fat jokes, but not so many to wear them out. I found myself smiling at the good naturedness of it all more than rolling my eyes at the familiarity.

I'd say the movie rates a B- overall. It doesn't send me rushing to see the sequels (which I hear aren't as good anyway), but it was fun enough on its own.

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