At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Kung Fu Panda “08”

MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Animated Martial Arts-Comedy/ Voices of: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Jackie Chan, Ian McShane, James Hong, Randall Duk Kim, Dan Fogler, Michael Clarke Duncan, Robert Clotworthy, Steve Bulen/ Runtime: 91 minutes

It is a known fact that cute and cuddly animals will always be able to sell. Indeed be they the kind you win on a crane game or at a carnival (20 dollars and too numerous to count tries later), the cute little puppy or kitty at the pet shop, or characters in Hollywood movies, furry-four legged pals are always a marketing firm’s dreams come to life (especially the part involving the over-flowing cash register). By the same token, the land of movie magic has also been privileged enough to have a long and quite iconic history of animals taking lead roles and then stealing our hearts (or in one’s case driving our ear drums absolutely nuts). Indeed Babe, Tom and Jerry, Old Yeller, Droopy, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Scooby-Doo, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Chip and Dale, Remy and Stimpy, and even Remy from 2007’s Ratatouille all have shown that they can ensnare the heart strings of audiences worldwide with their quite human in nature personalities, and also by showcasing a range of pathos whilst their adventures have all become part of the world of culture as we know it.  Of course, it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that, like any idea that is even remotely good, there will always be quite a few imitators that pop up to try and bring an idea crashing into the ground which might help explain why the world was also given a pair of live action Garfield films and enough entries in the Air Bud series to keep a 5 or 6-year old occupied until they enter middle or high school. Fortunately Kung Fu Panda, the movie I am reviewing today, is an entry in the former category rather than the latter. I say that because courtesy of stellar work in the animation, story, and character departments, Kung Fu Panda will make you laugh, warm your heart, amaze you with its jaw-dropping action, and showcase that more than anything, it is what can be found in the heart that matters most of all.

The plot is as follows: A long time ago in the far away land of ancient China, there was an artist in the fighting style of Kung Fu that was so powerful that he managed to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies with his incredible skill merely being present, and even a group of China’s most skilled Kung Fu masters known as the Furious Five all saw as their superior….at least that is in this guy’s dreams. This is because the reality of the situation is that our main character is an overweight panda by the name of Po who can’t even do a karate chop let alone ascend some stairs without wheezing all the way to the top, and who worships the ground the Furious Five all walk on and who aspires to one day be the hero that they all have managed to become. Suffice it to say then that it should come as no surprise to learn that when it is declared that one of the Five is to be given the title of “Dragon Warrior”, a title that is supposed to go to the most power wielder of Kung Fu ever, Po heads to their training ground at the Jade Temple, but sadly is seconds too late before the doors close thus negating his chance to see both his heroes and one of the most significant moments in the history of the Valley. Yet when Po manages to literally fall into the arena from the sky and right into the middle of the ceremony, soon things take a turn for the astonishing when old Master Oogway declares that Po is his choice for the Dragon Warrior! Suffice it to say that the Furious Five, especially their leader Tigress, are all left in a state of significant incredulity if not quite upset about this turn of events, but when Oogway stresses his insistence that Po is to fill this role, the Furious Five’s teacher Master Shifu is left with no choice, but to take on the challenge of turning this completely out of shape panda into a formidable force; a task that is soon made even more difficult when an old enemy from Shifu’s past by the name of Tai Lung breaks out of captivity and heads towards the Valley to get his revenge……

Now in addition to the massive overload of both brilliantly-done and phenomenally-conjured up on a computer characters and worlds that have come to rule the animated film game for the past decade-plus or so, some of the better ones also seem to share a unique yet important thematic concept. That would be not only how important it is to be yourself, but also how to keep moving forward even when the odds are against you. For example in the Disney*Pixar film Cars, hero Lightning McQueen discovers that what’s important isn’t being the flashiest or quickest car in the race or even winning for that matter. Instead it’s all about racing with heart and being the best version of yourself that you can be period that matters. Likewise in this film, we as moviegoers get the opportunity to really get to know this endearing albeit fluffy panda named Po with big dreams and an even bigger appetite. Yet even though he is ridiculed for playing with his toys, working in a job that was shoved his way by a dad who thinks his son will never be better than his lot in life, and thought by everyone but Lady Fate and Master Oogway to be too much of an oaf to ever be a good let alone great student of Kung Fu, Po regardless tries his best, and with the aid of Oogway as well as Shifu’s albeit reluctant acceptance in the idea that there are no accidents, we as an audience get to witness as Po becomes  maybe not the finest wielder of Kung-Fu ever, but rather an expert in not just heart, but in never giving up on himself let alone who he aspires to be in life. Thus what makes a movie like this one as uplifting and inspiring as it is because this is a movie which never pushes the belief that our main hero, and by extension the audience, needs to vastly change who they are in order to make a dream come true, to fulfill a prophecy, or just plain and simply uncover who we really are as individuals. Rather it’s what is inside you as an individual that can help you achieve the things you wish to more than anything else in this world.

Now in addition to this obvious, but still quite inspiring message to audiences, this is a film which, just as crucially, makes for a riveting, engaging, and quite comical film. Plus it almost certainly doesn’t hurt that every character in this story is both engaging and extremely well-performed starting with the quintet of talented thespians who make up the “Furious Five”. Indeed although this legendary and talented team really doesn’t get that much in regards to a little thing know as exposition, they still will be able to engage you as quite endearing characters and each with their own talents and personalities to boot. Nevertheless however they are clearly support cast in this and whilst their void of development may look on the surface as a missed opportunity, I think given this film’s wonderful pacing coupled with eliminating a child-friendly runtime and replacing it with 10 or 15 more minutes to really add depth to these characters might have been too risky of a gamble for this film to bet on. To that end, this film brilliantly chooses to put its focus on Po, of course, the stoic Master Shifu, and the evil Tai Lung. Yet even though Ian McShane and Dustin Hoffman do truly wonderful work with Tai and Shifu respectively, it is clear that the real star of the film is Jack Black as Po and thankfully the panda will not let you down by becoming too over-the-top or just plain annoying. Indeed easily one of the more delightful animated characters of the late 2000s, Po manages to wonderfully stumble his way throughout the entire film and the running concept involving Po’s vast love for all things edible never becomes too much. In fact the film manages to brilliantly involve food in nearly every major sequence in the film be it Po’s dad running a noodle shop, or Po’s love of food proving to be a huge obstacle to his physique to say nothing of his waist. To that end, we see Master Shifu ingeniously integrates food into Po’s training regimen, thus taking what many would see as a “weakness” and turning it into a significant strength. Finally it should also be noted that the comedy that this film presents us with never ever gets stale and actually will keep you rolling with laughter with the running joke of Po becoming severely winded and doubling over every time he must get to the top of the steps at the Jade Palace being one which every time it is done never getting old and actually still funny no matter how times it’s done or how many times you have seen the movie.

All in all it pleases me to let you know dear reader that Kung Fu Panda really truly is a movie which is able to do nearly everything it is supposed to as well as it could possibly have hoped for. Indeed here is a movie that possesses both a delightful wit as well as some truly exciting action-filled moments to say nothing of a riveting story, a truly fantastic and engaging group of characters, and even coming equipped with an inspiring message so you and your kids have something to be inspired by. Suffice it to say then that not only will this be a film that will be one which can be enjoyed time and time again by people of all ages, but I also believe that this film will be quite the hit to those of you who, even after all this time, have yet to see it. I mean it doesn’t matter if you are a lover of animated movies, kung-fu movies, or movies that make you feel better and take away all the cynicism and negativity that can overwhelm the soul in the world around us because this film fits all three of those categories wonderfully. More than that though, this is a movie that if you are someone who struggles with how you appear to the world, are not as full of courage as you would like, or have been unfairly bullied and put down by other people, will show you how to overcome that and that is to just simply be yourself. Yes people can be nasty, and they can be cruel, but as long as you have heart, there is truly nothing that you cannot accomplish and it is my hope that this is what you take away from this movie more than anything else. On a scale of 1-5 I give Kung Fu Panda a solid 4 out of 5.