Kim_Cardassian’s review published on Letterboxd:
You know, I always liked this movie, but I also kinda had it mind as the good-but-necessary warm-up act to Kung Fu Panda 2, the REAL masterpiece. Like, this is the setup, that movie's the payoff (and 3's the one we don't talk about). But I just caught a bit of it on TV, which led me to do a full rewatch from the start, and I gotta say, I think I've been seriously undervaluing this one all these years. Again, I always liked it, but I'm now of the opinion that this thing is an all-time animation great, up there with the likes of Shrek 2, the How to Train Your Dragon movies (the first two, at least) and even its own sequel.
Granted, I'm pretty sure I still probably like the second one better, if just because there's less people bullying Po, and also I like the Gary Oldman villain a lot more. But I gotta say, it's to the strengths of this movie that I enjoy it as much as I do considering how much secondhand embarrassment there is, which is usually my kryptonite, especially with family flicks. I'll also say, I never really gave Tai Lung the time of day as a villain, but this watchthrough gave me newfound appreciation for him as a villain. During that whole final confrontation with Shifu, all I could think was, "This dude is majorly suffering from Former Gifted Child Syndrome." And though I think Po and Lord Shen have a much better dynamic in the second one, I like the parallels that are drawn here between how they react to the Dragon Scroll. Po is totally accepting that "the secret ingredient is him," but Tai Lung, the ultimate warrior who everyone fears, sees his face reflected and is completely dissatisfied.
This is such a sneakily deep movie, so much so that I'm not at all surprised so many people have and continued to miss it. This movie already has endless props for being the only story I've ever seen that took the "schlubby untrained everyman is actually the chosen one instead of the incredibly badass highly trained lady who now has to babysit him" premise and actually did it well, mainly because, again, there's no secret ingredient. He doesn't have to change; Po's fine just the way he is. There's the theme of how a peach tree will always grow into a peach tree, and how both Shifu AND Po have to realize that there's nothing wrong with the way Po is. Po's such an optimistic character that it can be easy to miss that he also wanted to change: during that great scene where Po and Shifu finally have it out on the mountainside (the scene where the movie finally proves it's serious), Po articulates that he came here hoping that Shifu would change him into something other than himself. The fact that he ultimately wins by being himself EVEN HARDER is just...beautiful.
This movie overall is so smartly written from a character perspective. There's not really any time to give us in-depth character intros for the entire main cast, but it ultimately doesn't matter, because what they do instead - just letting the Furious Five interact with each other and Po in unique, personalized ways - informs their characters so much better than an exposition dump ever would (it's why I never felt the need to see those animated shorts which went through their backstories; why would I? I know who they are already). I also really like how each of the Five warm to him at different speeds; Viper seems to like him from the start (or at least is concerned for his safety), Mantis' "Who am I to judge a warrior based on his size" thing hits pretty early," but Crane and Monkey are kinda salty and taken aback and Tigress is taking the whole thing as a personal affront. Oh my god, Tigress; I think that might be the real secret miracle of this whole series, because her and Po's relationship could've been so bad, or even boring, but instead it's this lovely thing that develops realistically without flattening either of them in the process.
So, yeah, it's great across the board. It's a movie that beats down and humiliates the main character a whole bunch at the beginning, but also understand that you can't do that unless you're gonna pay it off with serious catharsis later. It's body-positive as hell; everyone was like, "Oh how brave is it that they let Thor be fat at the end of Endgame?" and I'm like, man, Kung Fu Panda beat you to it by about a decade (and unlike Endgame, the fights here are actually good). It's surprisingly badass for a kids movie; the kung fu battles are insanely well-choreographed, and do not cheat on the physics, which is not something you can say about a lot of animated movies. That bridge duel is a legit moment of kung fu epicness, which is payed off brilliantly and hilariously by Tai Lung just being completely befuddled by Po in the climax. Watching him try to fight the flabby panda and LOSING is like watching Batman try to take on a Loony Tune. One's a badass warrior, the other's operating on cartoon physics, and winning. It's hilarious.
Even more so than the How to Train Your Dragon movies (the first two, anyway), these are the ultimate example of “never judge a book by its cover”. NOTHING about this should work, what with that premise, that cast, that title, and yet…and yet. It's funny as hell, and very clever (stuff like Shifu getting increasingly annoyed at Oogway trying to blow out a candle until he does it himself isn't just hilarious, it's also a revealing character moment), the soundtrack is AWESOME, and the film somehow manages to blend its mystical and classical setting with modern-day dialogue in a way that doesn't feel incongruous; again, not something a lot of animated movies manage to do. Just another thing that subtly raises this above the pack.