Kung Fu Panda

Kung Fu Panda ★★★★½

I think it's fair to say that oftentimes when we hear of a film with a ridiculous title or premise, we tend to dismiss it immediately. People will roll their eyes when they see a trailer for a film called “The Boss Baby” or “The Secret Life of Pets” because we don’t usually associate quality filmmaking with such goofy labels. But if a film called Kung Fu freaking Panda has taught me anything, both from its story and from its mere existence as a cinematic masterpiece, it's that you should never judge a book by its cover.

The story centers around Po, a fat panda noodle shop employee with a passion for Kung Fu, despite having no actual training. But one day, he is suddenly pronounced as “The Dragon Warrior'' (basically a glorified Chosen One). No one can quite believe it, with even his teacher going as far as to try to get him to quit. Then there’s an evil bad guy that Po has to learn how to stop. From that description, one might see this as an overly formulaic, unoriginal slog. But this plot works so well, not only because of its characters and world but because of how it subverts standard tropes. Even a trope as tired as “The Chosen One” is actually cleverly subverted to play into the film’s grander themes.

However, the star of the show is obviously the characters. Po is just so instantly likable and relatable. His positivity and determination are infectious, and you really want to see him succeed despite everyone telling him he can’t. Even the characters who think very little of Po still manage to be really likable. Shi-fu, Po’s doubtful master, is a blast to watch. Seeing him be dumbfounded that someone like Po could possibly be the Dragon Warrior, only for him to realize that he actually might have potential is really satisfying. Tai Lung, the villain, is basically a one man army. He’s immediately intimidating from the first moment you see him, while also managing to sneak in a few laughs. They even manage to give him a really good backstory. The Furious Five are also pretty good, though they do feel a little underdeveloped. It is nice to see them slowly warm up to Po as the film progresses, and they have likable enough personalities that make them distinct from one another.

The characters inhabit such a visually stunning world. The ancient Chinese-inspired setting makes for some jaw dropping backgrounds and locations, which is usually accompanied by excellent music and sound design. The animation is definitely a stand out here. It has an excellent color palette and great character design. It’s also very fluent and smooth, which makes for some of the best fight scenes in animation history. There were so many incredible fights in this film, from the opening 2D sequence, to the prison escape, to the bridge scene, to Shi-Fu’s fight with Tai Lung, to the ultimate showdown. These fight scenes are visual treats for the eyes, as they contain stunning choreography and energy.

However, what I find most compelling about Kung Fu Panda are its themes and lessons. For the first half of the movie, everyone tells Po that he needs to give up and go home. But Po perseveres because he believes that, despite what everyone says about him, Shi-Fu can train him to be someone different, someone better than what he thinks he is. Po doesn’t seem to be learning Kung Fu very well through the traditional methods, so Shi-Fu tries a different tactic: he plays to Po’s own strengths; he decides to embrace what makes Po special. And it's this approach that proves to be the most effective. Po is able to improve at Kung Fu through his very unorthodox style, and although it might not be the traditional way, it is what ultimately allows him to stand up to Tai Lung. I adore this message, as it tells the viewer not to become someone you’re not, but to embrace what makes you unique. Don’t let other people tell you to change or that you can’t do what you want to do. We all have the ability to do what we want, and as cheesy as it sounds, we just have to believe that we can. Because, at the end of the day, there is no one special person; instead, we are all special in our own way.

It still blows my mind that a film called Kung Fu Panda is as funny, energetic, thought-provoking, action-packed, and all-around excellent as it is. But again, that is the movie’s ultimate message, that maybe something that you think is worthless might actually have more potential than you first thought. I do realize that modern Dreamworks does have a bit of a reputation for putting out mostly mediocre films. But movies like Kung Fu Panda prove that they are fully capable of creating innovative, inspiring masterpieces.

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