If nothing else, Kung Fu Panda is visually stunning. Every single digitally rendered frame has had heaps of artistic love dumped on it. The result is rich enough not only to eat but to keep you stuffed for days.
As for the rest of it—you know, kicky embellishments like story and theme—Panda’s success depends on whom you ask. My almost-6-year old declared it “great!” The 8-year old also with us said it was “awesome.” If you care merely that your kid is entertained for two hours in air conditioning, then Kung Fu Panda succeeds.
Plus, it’s pretty. Did I mention that it’s pretty?
The plot is easy to follow. Po, a fuzzy, fat panda voiced by Jack Black, is declared the next Dragon Warrior, supplanting the five warriors-in-training who have been kung-fu fighting since infancy. Most ticked is Tigress (Angelina Jolie), but sensei Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) smoothes her fur by promising that he’ll be so mean to Po that he’ll quit his Warrior training. Shifu’s like Louis Gossett Jr. to Po’s Richard Gere. (David Keith makes no appearance, thankfully.)
You can see where this goes, yes? Malevolent, rogue fighter Tai Lung (Ian McShane, who doesn’t swear even once, sadly) escapes from prison and raises havoc. Shifu learns to trust his instincts. A phallic turtle sage spouts aphorisms involving the present being a gift. Tigress gets over herself. Po proves that even defenseless, cheerful, flabby pandas have something to offer the world. In short—spoiler alert—good prevails.
Part of the problem with Panda, if you’re over the age of 12, is that there is nothing really at stake. Po doesn’t seem to be all that concerned about becoming the Dragon Warrior. He thinks it’s a neat idea, sure, but won’t be crushed if it doesn’t happen. His noodle-selling father Mr. Ping (James Hong) is one of the film’s highlights, and a real mensch when it comes to accepting his likable, bumbling son. Unlike Richard Gere, Po has plenty of other places to go.
When your main character is extremely mellow, you need something to drive the plot; otherwise the film just sacks out and eats Cool Ranch Doritos. The five displaced fighters could be a source of conflict, but they’re mostly too nice to take a stand. Bad guy Tai Lung smashes up a lot of stuff and hurts some people, but he really just needs a time-out more than he requires a thorough ass-kicking.
Plus, it’s really hard to buy into the idea of Po being the ass-kicker, given that he learned all of his moves in 24 hours. Even if I could suspend my disbelief long enough to accept that—like, he’s the Dragon Warrior and can learn at a faster pace or something—I can’t quite wrap my head around the message that sends. Is it a good plan to hint that you don’t have to work at kung fu, you just have to be flabby and full of faith that you can? As much as I’d like to believe that I have cat-like reflexes and mad karate skills, your average lavender belt can take me. Perhaps I’m just not wishing hard enough.
Admittedly, these are the thoughts of a grown up. Will a kid see Po as a subtle endorsement of obesity and a slap in the face to hard work? Probably not. It’s also probably a bad move to go looking for subtext where there is barely enough actual text to sink your teeth into.
So what’s left? There are some moments that are fall-down funny, like Po’s first walk through the Sacred Hall of Warriors. The fighting and training montages are dazzling technical feats. Even at its worst, Kung Fu Panda is genially pleasant. There are greater tests of endurance to sit through with your kids.
But I can’t help but wonder what this concept could have been in the hands of, say, Pixar, who are the reigning royalty of making kid flicks that also resonate on other levels. The comparison may be unfair. Kung Fu Panda succeeds at its primary goal, which is to move a lot of tickets and merch. And, of course, to be pretty.