After the success of their foray into computer-animation in the shape of the Shrek trilogy and Madagascar, DreamWorks Animation in 2008 brought about the introduction of a new kind of hero. A panda. But not just any old panda, this is a panda who knows kung fu. A Kung Fu Panda if you will.
Initially written as a parody it was co-director John Stevenson (alongside Mark Osborne) who decided that it should be a Chinese-based animated Wuxia action-comedy film instead. And in this film we find a variety of anthropomorphic animals residing in a small provincial village at the base of a mountain, atop which is the Kung Fu academy which houses the Furious 5, a crack team of kung fu animal warriors.
It may not seem it at first but our hero is the panda Po (Jack Black) who begins the story in his goose father’s (I know, I know!) noodle shop. He is a long time kung fu nerd, without actually ever having learning how to do it, and completely in awe of the Furious 5. He is the most unlikely of heroes but all that changes when, in a big ceremony to choose a new Dragon Warrior, he literally falls out of the sky to become the Chosen One.
As you would expect with a kung fu based film there are lots of quotable lines throughout Kung Fu Panda, mainly uttered by the ancient kung fu master, Grand Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), and all are proven to be prophetic in the journey of Po. One of his first is:
“Nothing is impossible”
And here we are given the belief that Po can indeed become that which he is so desperate to be: the Dragon Warrior and with it bringing peace to the valley. Oogway once again proffers up a nugget of wisdom when the realisation that Po is now the Dragon Warrior:
“There are no accidents”
The main part of Kung Fu Panda revolves around the premonition that Oogway has about the escape of Tai Lung (Ian McShane) from his unescapable prison. Tai Lung always believed that he has been wronged in not being chosen as the Dragon Warrior and will seek revenge on those who have denied him. However, it is actually the action of checking on Tai Lung by Master Shifu’s (Dustin Hoffman) order that precipitates his escape. Again Master Oogway comes up with the goods:
“One often meets ones destiny on the road to avoid it”
And so it happens that Tai Lung is unleashed on the world once again and making a bee-line straight for Grand Master Oogway, Master Shifu and the Furious 5 to exact some revenge and gain the ultimate power of the Dragon Warrior.
The serious Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is tasked with training the Furious 5 to be ready for the coming of Tai Lung and is completely hostile to Po becoming one of the fighting warriors and puts him through some trials that any decent kung fu-ist would be able to cope with. But unfortunately not for keen-but-not-very-able Po. However, his irrepressible desire for Kung Fu and impregnability keeps allowing him to get back up and to further confound Master Shifu.
It is eventually left to Po alone to defeat Tai Lung and in his moment of crisis he finds his father and they have a discussion about soup that leads to Po believing at last that he is the Chosen One, that being the Dragon Warrior requires nothing other than knowing that he is. With his journey of discovery and self-belief now complete, Po is ready to take on Tai Lung and it is Po’s ability to take a beating whilst remaining relatively unhurt, bounce back up again allied with his accidental style of kung fu that confuses and eventually defeats Tai Lung. Po at last is our unlikely hero, our accidental hero (even if there are no accidents!).
Jack Black is superbly cast in his role of Po: His infectious energy and his idiosyncratic speech and dialect carries across into his character perfectly well and when combined with his clumsiness super-power and seeming indestructibility he has the potential to for something if not exactly a decent warrior.
The rest of the cast is chock full of vocal talent, proving that this is not a film that was lined up to fly under the radar. Other than those already mentioned we have: Angelina Jolie (Tigress), Jackie Chan (Monkey), Seth Rogan (Mantis), Lucy Liu (Viper), David Cross (Crane), James Hong (Mr Ping), Dan Fogler (Zeng) and Michael Clarke Duncan (Commander Vachir).
Four years in the making, the finished product is very polished and defined, really knowing what it is trying to accomplish and what it wants to be. More complex an animation than ever attempted perviously by DreamWorks it jumps out of the screen alongside the absolutely superb artwork, bringing the world of Kung Fu Panda to life. With vivid colours, scenic backdrops and kinetic action sequences, it is a joy to behold and equally as engrossing for the younger viewer as well.
Scored in a traditional Chinese style by the ever impressive Hans Zimmer, it fits in with the style and location of the story really well. Visiting China to absorb the culture and using this time to get to know the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra. An extensive budget of $130 million was greatly surpassed with a worldwide box office total of just over $630 million, a large portion of which came from being well received in China.
The success of this film spawned two equally good sequels (ingeniously titled Kung Fu Panda 2 and Kung Fu Panda 3) and a decent spin-off TV series (which has the amazing title of Legends of Awesomeness). Kung Fu Panda got a nomination for a Best Animation Academy award, even though it eventually lost out to Wall-E, but it did get a good amount of victories at that years Annie Awards to make up for it. Skadoosh!