“There’s no charge for awesome”

In the continual battle of animated movies, DreamWorks (think Shrek) the only rival to Pixar (think Ratatouille). Whereas Pixar is the inheritor to the classic family cartoons of a bygone era, DreamWorks has a streak of being too clever by half, ever impressed by their own hipness. While they churn out good movies, but they are ultimately forgettable (unlike the Pixar films, budding classics which will stand the test of time). The pattern doesn’t break with Kung Fu Panda.

The animation is on point. The backdrop of Kung Fu Panda, the Valley of Peace, radiates as a lush, fully imagined world. Unfortunately, that world is much more developed than the characters who inhabit it. The “Furious Five”—Monkey (Jackie Chan, Forbidden Kingdom), Tigress (Angelina Jolie, Beowulf), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross)—are stock, cardboard, character by numbers. To be fair, they aren’t given a lot to work with. They exist to service the against-all-odds/loser-becomes-hero plot.

Po (Jack Black), THE fat panda, aspires to be a great kung fu warrior over carrying on the family business of selling noodles. (And I’ll admit, just like I couldn’t get past the males having udders in the movie Barnyard, I was distracted by how a stork could be the father of a panda). Left to his own devices, I’m sure Jack Black would jump off the screen to overwhelm us with the force of his personality, which Po needed more of. Dustin Hoffman infuses Master Shifu with a deeper sense of characterization than the script gives him.

“Legends tell of a legendary warrior …”

Kung Fu Panda is about a journey of faith, faith in the Dragon Scroll and the journey it leads you on. The master-student relationship is an important one when it comes to the idea of “making disciples”. The process of discipleship is a journey with our teachers, realizing that the teaching and learning have a relational component. The master/teacher embodies, incarnates if you will, the teachings and faith is lived out in the context of a community. It’s basically apprenticeship, with the goal of the student to become as much like the teacher as possible. It’s a call for a teacher to walk alongside their disciples, to live life with them. No, this is not a perfect way to do it: Jesus walked alongside his for three years and most of the time they didn’t seem to get the point.

“No, it was the dream.” Po’s Dad

We all should aspire to be dragon warriors, a disciple of peace. Too often, we’ve lost our ability to dream, contenting ourselves with little things. We settle, due to our job, life circumstance, and our resentment of what could have been festers in us. Much like Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, Tai Lung (Ian McShane, Deadwood) is the story of a Judas, one who walks in discipleship then betrays his master and his teachings. A good man, for all intents and purposes, led down a dark path because of some internal discontent. He had his head filled with dreams, destiny, sacrifice, and discipline. However, the dream became poisoned within him as he was lost to the dark side, his dark night of the soul fueled by disappointment rather than doubt.

“The mark of a true hero is humility.” Master Shifu

Kung Fu Panda
telegraphs its every plot point and character development. Watching Po, the audience is on a countdown to the shortcut to a lifetime of study or what I call “mastery in a montage.” One might walk in expecting a laughfest only to be disappointed, the main laughs coming from a few easy (fart and food) jokes.

The movie comes to life during its numerous energetic battle sequences, with the dumpling battle scene easily being the highlight. The plot was far too predictable and I was going to write about how the characters probably aimed to be archetypal, but landed somewhere in the vicinity of clichés. However, my littlest critic, my eldest son (age 7) explained that I missed the point. I took the movie too seriously and the movie was actually awesome. He then proceeded to kung fu his younger brother for the rest of the day. So while it might not stand as a classic, Kung Fu Panda delivers what it promised its target audience: an entertaining romp that will leave kids bouncing all the way home.