Kung Fu Panda is a film with something for everyone, as all good animated money- makers are these days. Toss in something for boys, for girls, for action junkies, for thrill junkies, for saps, and for adults and you have the makings of a formidable box office champ. Kung Fu Panda is that, but it also has a somewhat profound message at its center. Is that a reason to see it? No, but you can feel some satisfaction knowing that one of the dominating cultural forces in your child’s life is sending out the right message for once.
Many animated films now center on an initially feeble but ultimately powerful hero. In this case, it’s the noodle kitchen busboy and giant panda Po (Jack Black) who wants to defy his father (the noodle chef) and become a Kung Fu warrior. All odds are against the panda who is essentially lazy and, as the film continually reminds us, way too fat.
Nonetheless, when it comes time to find the Dragon Warrior, Po runs away from home to watch the Furious Five compete. They are Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross) and Tigress (Angelina Jolie). By hook or crook, Po manages not only to get himself up the many steps to the temple, but also to become the Dragon Warrior himself.
Everyone laughs at Po who is supposedly going to defeat the evil Tai Lung (Ian McShane), an exiled and imprisoned snow leopard who had vowed to return in order to get his hands on the Dragon Scroll, a piece of paper that is supposed to imbue its possessor with great and immense powers. Po must train and learn to become a Kung Fu master in a matter of days to defeat Tai Lung. By this time, the ending seems to have been already written. And the plot doesn’t deviate from what’s expected of it, the secret to success according to writer William Goldman, who knows that audiences want a familiar story told in an unexpected way. “Give the audience what they want, but not in the way they expected it,” he once wrote by way of advice to young screenwriters.
How could Kung Fu Panda lose? Jack Black is funny as the greatly flawed hero. The film never explains why the panda has a vulture for a father – it isn’t ever brought up. Po is adopted, but that just isn’t an issue in this film. His father is simply his father. Is it any wonder Angelina Jolie wanted to be a part of the film?
Kung Fu Panda’s message is an important one. But the real reason to see the movie, probably, is for the fast and dynamic fight sequences. Isn’t that always the way? The film is also now a video game, a format that suits it quite well. The film is, to a tamer degree, not unlike a first person fight game, even more so than, say, the Tomb Raider movies. Boys are being raised on media where they are in the center of a battle. The fights in Kung Fu Panda seem particularly influenced by how these games are designed and played.
Panda was top of the box office as well, ahead of the Adam Sandler comedy, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. Sex and the City dropped to fourth place but made over $100 million in just two weeks. Animated films appear to be almost guaranteed moneymakers, especially if they involve animals of any kind. This one has a diverse selection of creatures that share a world, which is as it should be.