One of my biggest pet peeves is people who talk in movie theaters. I can’t stand it. I shushed my future husband the first time we went to a movie together (he didn’t break up with me on the spot, and I knew we were destined to be together forever). So it was fate’s idea of a joke to give me two children who rarely shut up during movies. It’s a testament to how good the Kung Fu Panda movie is that my children were the quietest they’ve ever been in a theater. Not silent, and still annoying, but better than they ever have been, and for the first time ever, neither one of them asked to go home at any point during the movie.
Kung Fu Panda is one of those rare kids’ movies that adults will love too. And I don’t say that lightly. I was completely unimpressed with all of the Shrek movies, bored by Cars, and haven’t liked a Disney animated movie since The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But I loved Kung Fu Panda!
Let’s start with the voices. Sometimes when actors are cast as cartoon characters, their voices are so over-the-top “them” that it’s distracting (think Eddie Murphy in Shrek). But the voice acting in Kung Fu Panda is actually, well, acting! The voices fit the characters perfectly. And since they weren’t distracting, I didn’t spend the whole movie trying to figure out who they were.
The computer animation is incredible! It’s so impressive at this point that it’s easy to forget how difficult it must be to make CGI this beautifully expressive and convincing. And I’m not sure, but I think that the first scene might have been a good-old-fashioned hand-drawn cartoon, which was a nice juxtaposition to the depth and detail of the CGI to come.
The story follows Po, a big, sweet Panda bear who works with his father in his noodle shop. His father wants only for his son to follow him into the noodle business, but Po is obsessed with kung fu. He doesn’t want to disappoint his father, though, and it’s all that much sweeter because his father does not demand anything from Po, he just fervently hopes. And Po wants very much to please his father, but can’t hide his love of kung fu.
Po is like a kid obsessed with hockey: plays with hockey figurines, worships the players, knows all their stats. Wants nothing more than to go to the Stanley Cup Finals. But when he finally gets there, and sits in his front row seat, ready to enjoy watching the game of his life, the coach grabs him and tells him to suit up, he’s playing starting center! And wouldn’t you know it, the kid can’t even stand up on the ice! This is Po when he gets his chance at kung fu. But he’s filled with optimism, and keeps trying enthusiastically.
A battle is brewing between the kung fu students and Tai Lung, an ex-student of Master Shifu. Tai Lung is being held in a prison just for him, watched over and taunted by 1000 over-confident guards. A vision of Tai Lung’s escape sets into motion events that, naturally, help him escape. Like Hannibal Lecter with his paperclip, Tai Lung seizes his moment and the fun we’re all having at Po’s expense takes on more urgency.
The action scenes are pretty impressive. They’re very stylized, like a live-action martial arts movie, and held everyone’s attention, kids and adults alike. The penultimate battle scared my six-year-old son a little bit, but my four-year-old daughter didn’t blink. And the serious scenes never go on too long before Po lightens things up. The chopstick battle over the last dumpling was my favorite scene, exciting and hilarious at the same time.
This movie hits on so many important themes having to do with the way that grown ups talk to kids. Was Po meant to be in the position he’s put in? Probably not. But someone in authority told him that he was capable of being a kung fu master, and this gives him the confidence he needs. And what about his father? How does Po go after his own dream without trampling on the dream his father has for him? Will his father be offended? Or will his father help him fulfill his destiny?
Children’s egos are so fragile. How do we build them up without making them over-confident and obnoxious? It’s a delicate balance, but the animals guiding Po get it just right. I don’t know if any of this resonated with my kids, I doubt it. They were too busy laughing and enjoying themselves. But it sure resonated with me. You can be anything you believe you can be. Ignore the naysayers, find your motivation, and believe in yourself. Just like Po.