Ticket price: 10.99
Seat: Front right
Attendance: about 20
Weather: Clear, warm
Food: Reese bites, Coke
Pre-show ads: unknown (arrived late)
Trailers: Madagascar 2
It’s hard for me to review this movie without getting a little personal, so I won’t try. I love this movie. I had seen it already when it came out over a month ago with my son, and in the intervening time I have also gone to see Wall-E, its logical competition. As much as I did and do admire that shiny new model of Pixar technology, I think Kung Fu Panda is still the best animated feature of the year, and indeed one of the best features of the year period, AND one of the best kung fu pictures ever made.
What makes it personal for me? Three things, which I will explain in greater detail at the risk of trying your patience:
1) I am a bit of an animation snob.
2) I have studied martial arts in the past.
3) I have a Zen Buddhist practice.
So, on the first point about being an animation snob. I hate to be a snob about anything, but just like some musicians cringe when they hear The Grateful Dead, I cringe when I see animation that involves poorly designed characters against uninteresting backgrounds spouting lackluster dialogue that even a kid doesn’t think is funny; or, poorly translated and repetitive anime. To give you an idea of what I do like, my high-water mark for feature animation was 1999, which gave us Toy Story 2 from Pixar; Princess Mononoke, imported from Studio Ghibli in Japan; The Iron Giant, from Warner Bros.; and the South Park movie. Not to mention Disney’s Tarzan, if you like that kind of thing; I never saw it. The character design and music by Phil Collins kept me away.
I was similarly repelled a couple of years later by an animated blockbuster called Shrek. It had big stars, cheeky humour, a good promotional campaign by DreamWorks, an amusing concept; but it really failed to deliver for me and has not been improved by sequels. The computer animation, while attractive enough in commercials, looked flat and amateurish on the big screen. The script, in which the villain was essentially Disney chairman Michael Eisner, was in poor taste considering that one of the founders of Dreamworks is a former Disney head of animation. Disney animation may very well suck, I decided at the time; but so does DreamWorks.
What a different world we have today. Eisner is gone and the head of Pixar studios, John Lasseter, is now in charge of Disney animation. Brad Bird, who created The Iron Giant for Warner, brought The Incredibles to Pixar. Other studios have tried to enter the field, most notably Sony with the surprisingly good Surf’s Up! last year. And DreamWorks, presumably thanks in part to Shrek money, has been able to quietly put together a string of pretty good movies, like Over The Hedge in 2006 and several co-productions with England’s Aardman productions (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, Flushed Away). Kung Fu Panda is a whole new level of brilliance for DreamWorks in every respect: script, animation, all ages appeal, and more.
So on to the second point, about studying martial arts. Not only does a lot of this film ring true in terms of the philosophy behind martial arts (ie., don’t abuse the power it gives you, respect your teacher, etc.), it rings true in terms of my own misgivings about studying them. As a younger man and even now, I always felt uncomfortable with the master-student relationship that is generally required in martial arts; I expect that is mainly because I am a Westerner and we are raised to be self-centred, individualistic, more concerned about the future than the past. There is a brilliant scene, a short and perfect gem within this jewel of a film that expresses the mechanics of this relationship and how it can go terribly wrong. Indeed, that scene explains better than most kung fu movies how a well-meaning student can become an “evil” renegade; and when the master and student meet again after a long separation, it is a little heartbreaking.
Perhaps as a result of neglecting my own martial arts studies, I have spent the last decade or more watching hundreds of kung fu movies. Jackie Chan’s autobiography is one of my favourite books. I can honestly say that Kung Fu Panda isn’t just a great work of animation, it is one of the greatest kung fu movies ever made. Unlike the recent spate of big budget tributes to cheap Shaw Brothers pictures, Kung Fu Panda takes the conventions of kung fu movies and turns them on their ear, creating something new out of the old. Instead of one school challenging another, the five major styles generally associated with kung fu are each represented by a spirit animal (tiger, crane, mantis, monkey, and snake) who work as a team. The training and battle scenes are as irreverent as the Drunken Master films that made Jackie Chan famous and the more traditional, technically brilliant early films of Jet Li (Fist of Legend, Once Upon A Time In China).
Which brings me to my final point, about Buddhism. Buddhism has a curious place in China; when it arrived from India, it became entangled with Taoism and later Confucianism to form a sort of philosophy, religion, medicine, and psychiatry rolled into one. Monks developed kung fu as a way to not only defend themselves and villages from invading Mongols, but also to promote general physical and mental and social health. Influenced as it is by the Tao, studying martial arts or Buddhism in this culture is sometimes referred to as studying “the way” or being “on the path.” Both Jet Li and Jackie Chan and many less famous figures use martial arts as an example to those who wish to follow The Way. And just as kung fu eventually made its way to other Far East countries, adapting to suit the local conditions, so did Buddhism, putting down deep roots in Japan with the mysterious and exotic discipline of Zen.
The old master in Kung Fu Panda is so Zen it was hard not to laugh with delight as he shrugs off dualities, chooses a panda to be the fabled Dragon Warrior, and lectures another master about not grasping after things beyond his control. The other master, amusingly named Si Fu (Chinese for “Master”), is a case study in karma; after the disappointment of one student who he loved as a son, he avoids showing love for any others, and those decisions collide in the climax of the film. The content of the Dragon Scroll, which supposedly imbues the reader with limitless power, is quintessentially Zen.
Ultimately, Kung Fu Panda is what Shrek should have been. It takes a different culture’s fairy tales and creates a world of lasting joy and respect instead of quickly forgotten cheap laughs and vulgarity. Catch it on the big screen while you can, and make sure you stay until the very last second.
Crowd reaction at end of movie: positive
Credit cookie?: yes
For further consideration: if this is ever remade as a live action film – and I would love to see that happen – Po should be played by Samo Hung.
Opening next week: The Dark Knight, Transsiberia, Mamma Mia!, Space Chimps
Please god, anything but: Space Chimps