Title: Kung Fu Panda
Genre: Animation, Action, Adventure
Director: Mark Osborne, John Stevenson
Screenwriter: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Starring: Jack Black, Ian McShane, Angelina Jolie
I can’t hate Kung Fu Panda. I’m not sure I ever could hate a movie called Kung Fu Panda, no matter its content. In a way, I’m glad it got made. But it never quite connects. Maybe the problem is that the more weird and clever the movie gets, the more its generic message-mongering grates. Why create a universe this utterly gonzo if all you’re going to do is repeat the same “believe-in-yourself” and “everyone-is-special” pablum kids have heard a million times? Where’s Brad Bird when you need him?
It’s worth emphasizing that a fair bit of ingenuity went into Kung Fu Panda — it is not an Alvin and the Chipmunks-style creative dead zone. I enjoyed the way that the movie implicitly riffs on the family film tradition of ridiculous anthropomorphizing, taking place in a China that is populated entirely by talking animals of all different species, but that nonetheless harbors a rich martial arts tradition. As the film opens, the country’s greatest warriors — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross), under the tutelage of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) — are competing to become the fabled Dragon Warrior, who will reap the benefits of a magical scroll and become empowered to defeat the villainous tiger Tai Lung (Ian McShane).
A series of mishaps that don’t merit recounting lead to the hapless, fat panda Po (Jack Black) being declared the Dragon Warrior to the horror and astonishment of Tigress, Monkey, etc., who actually know kung fu. Po is a kung fu fanatic in the sense that he daydreams about being a legendary warrior (“There’s no charge for awesomeness. Or attractiveness,” Daydream Po informs a group of grateful villagers he rescues), but couldn’t pull off a roundhouse kick to save his life. To rise to the challenge of fighting Tai Lung, Po will have to overcome his fears and learn to believe that he can become the Dragon Warrior.
It all sounds interesting right up until the end, doesn’t it? That’s roughly the experience of watching Kung Fu Panda. The action builds to a finale that’s meant to be triumphant, but it’s so ordinary, so par for the course for these big-budget animated extravaganzas, that the effect is dispiriting. Did they really set up this weirdly intricate (if also nonsensical) universe just for that?
I’ll often forgive a disappointing resort to convention if a film is otherwise extraordinary, but Kung Fu Panda doesn’t quite get there either. It’s fitfully funny, but often in a grudging, eye-rolling sort of way, with jokes that are endearingly goofy rather than genuinely inspired. The action is good, and there’s a lot of it, so maybe that’ll do it for the kids. The whole thing is certainly cute, but it never quite takes off.
I dunno; maybe I’m being a curmudgeon. I repeat that the film is by no means a chore. But it does seem like a missed opportunity. Why must movies aimed at children repeat the same platitudes over and over again? Are our kids that insecure?