A lot of critics give a lot of flak to Dreamworks for not being Pixar, or Disney. Well, sometimes Pixar isn’t Pixar either. For myself, I find most of the Dreamworks movies to be fair to good, somewhere in the C+ to B range. And frankly, that’s fine by me. These are actually movies made for children that adults can enjoy, rather than many of the best Pixar movies which are movies that are made for adults that children can enjoy. So the Dreamworks movies may be simpler. Sometimes simple is great.
To illustrate my point, when I watched Inside Out I laughed out loud exactly once. When I watch the “Panda” movies (or the spin-off TV show which wasn’t too bad either), I laugh out loud more than once. It’s like a Looney Tunes cartoon; it is never not funny to see Wile E. Coyote or Daffy Duck slam into a wall. Likewise, I really don’t get tired of watching that panda endure the most slapsticky of slapstick situations.
But besides that, I actually think the trilogy is pretty good children’s entertainment.
Kung Fu Panda
As far as hero journeys go, this is pretty typical. Eager young person aspires to more than his/her humble life offers. In a twist of fate, eager young person gets a chance at greatness and finds getting everything s/he wants is not easy, and maybe not what s/he really needs. There’s a wise mentor, hostile allies, and a big bad looming over everything. In the end, the eager young person rises to the occasion and saves the day.
Yes, it’s formulaic but what sells it for me are two things: 1) Po is an ascended fanboy and 2) Po is really bad at being the hero. Po’s absolute devotion of all things the Furious Five represent is reflected even when they are kicking his butt up and down the Jade Palace. He’s almost glad to be on the receiving end of the beat-down because it gives him a chance to see the Five pull out their most famous moves. He has collectible action figures, for crying out loud. And Po is really bad at being the Dragon Warrior. Even once he learns kung fu, he’s still clumsy and prone to overcompensate for his lack of experience (luckily for him he appears to be nigh indestructible). However, like all Chosen Ones, he manages to rise to the occasion, defeat the villain, and save the day.
Kung Fu Panda 2
So now the hero has seemingly achieved his destiny and is left with the question, “What now?” This leads Po to question his past and why he’s the only panda in the valley. In the predictable dark turn (although this is especially dark for a children’s movie), Po learns his home and family were destroyed by a psychotic, power-hungry overlord who essentially committed panda genocide to prevent a prophecy about “a warrior of black and white” ending his reign. Po feels guilty about is status as the Chosen One and wonders if it would have been better otherwise. Eventually he comes to his senses and destroys the overlord as he was prophesied to do.
Kung Fu Panda 3
Now Po feels more confident as the Chosen One, but learns there is still a lot more to learn about kung fu, such as the mastery of chi. He gets disheartened as he goes from the best warrior to the worst teacher as he expands his horizons. But his long-lost panda father finds him and they reconnect with Po finding out his father escaped the destruction and fled to the secret hidden valley of pandas. Unfortunately, a new evil emerges to conquer the world and the only way to defeat him is to master chi. An ancient scroll reveals the pandas of the secret valley used to be such masters, so Po’s father tells Po he has to go with him to the valley to learn. This is a lie, of course, as Po finds out when the remaining survivor of the assault on the Jade Palace asks him if he’s mastered chi yet. But Po gets over his hurt, has an epiphany about how to defeat the bad guy, and when that doesn’t quite work, he sacrifices himself but realizes what it really means to be the Chosen One. The pandas remember how to use chi and give Po the power to defeat the bad guy and return to the mortal world.
"And we found out Tigress is flammable." - Crane
The Characters –
All of the stereotypes are in place – the clumsy youngster, the wise, frustrated mentor, and the diverse supporting cast. But the characterizations are good, especially Tigress, who did not end up forced romantic interest for Po. With the exception of Viper, who does not have fangs, and Tigress, there are no predators in the valley (although one does wonder if some of the dumplings have pork in them). Tigress plays the role of determined champion who has to prove herself and is at first resentful that Po took what she sees as her rightful place but in the end comes to respect him. Monkey is the trickster, and Crane and Mantis are the bantering buddies. Viper is the sweet, unassuming one who kicks all the ass when forced to. Shifu is a red panda and the frustrated master. Po’s adoptive father is a goose and greedy merchant with a good heart. In the end, he shows that he cares more for Po than anything else in the world. And Ugway is the ascended, patient master who is the epitome of the little old bald man in kung fu movies who turns out to be the supreme ass-kicker. The villains are a bit generic but their characters matter less than their threat level.
Are these characters deep and complex? For a kids’ movie, I’d say yes. Po actually goes through a character arc from goofy, clumsy, wide-eyed fanboy, to confident kung fu master who is still a fanboy and occasionally clumsy and goofy. He made peace with his past, his present, and his future and figured out his place in the world. That’s the arc. The voice acting really elevates the characters as well.
The Setting –
Like I said, there are no predators in the valley with the exception of Tigress and Viper. Because everyone fears predators, Tigress is aloof and a model of rigid self-control. The world is called “China” but is populated by anthropomorphic animals. There is a certain epic feel in the landscapes and set pieces. The world does not feel small. It’s believable there could be a secret hidden panda valley. The local valley is filled mostly with pigs, ducks, geese, and rabbits, who seem to be farmers and merchants. Large, tough animals like rhinos and water buffalo seem to gravitate towards being guards. Interestingly, of the three movies, the bad guy was only a predator in one. The film makers really utilized the animal angle and I appreciate that. For example, most of the kung fu artifacts in the Jade Palace are pretty creative and definitely animal-specific.
Narrative Construction –
The hero’s journey is a pretty standard story. But the writing is actually pretty good and quite quotable (even beyond “ska-doosh”).
"There's so much wisdom in here I can't find anything!" - Shifu
The character designs are nice too. Pretty much everyone except Po has a kind of blocky design, but Po is nothing but squishy spheres. It’s a nice visual touch that helps to separate him from everyone else. Tigress in particular is very blocky, but that also separates her and I like that fact that even though she is a female, the character designers did not give her noticeable breasts to define her sex (unlike, say, a failed attempt at a ninja turtle, and turtles aren’t even mammals!).
For movies made for children, I like them a lot. Kids’ movies don’t have to be stupid or insipid or annoyingly silly just because they’re simple. They can be genuine and quotable and laugh out loud funny. These movies are good examples. And sometimes a movie for my inner 9-year old is a nice break.