June 5, 2008
There are a few things I didn't like about Kung Fu Panda.
First, I couldn't take all the fat jokes. Actually, not the fat jokes per se, but one line ("I eat when I'm nervous") adds a subtext to some of them. In the funny-animal world of Kung Fu Panda, it kind of makes sense that everyone would make fun of title character Po, as he's the only rotund character around, while being somewhat graceless and easily tired despite his designation as the prophesied Dragon Warrior. The problem is, that one sentence (and one the end of a later scene) ratifies some of the stereotypes surrounding real-life overweight people by suggesting that he eats so much due to a lack of control (i.e., it's his fault he's fat; weight becomes a character issue). But he's a panda. Of course he's round, and of course he eats a lot. It's like criticizing a frog for eating flies. The movie could have played out the same way without that element.
Second, when Po wistfully looks off in the distance at the film's opening because he dreams of being more than a noodle cook—exactly like in every other animated feature in which our frustrated hero yearns for something more than his or her dreary life—I wanted to scream and throw something at the screen. Enough, already!
And yet, much to my surprise, I enjoyed the rest of the movie. I say "To my surprise" because I'd barely gotten out of the lobby after Bee Movie when I realized I was sick of DreamWorks' apparently endless formula of using wisecracking New York humour. Same with the earlier Madagascar, where they were often joking about New York. It's a bad sign when side characters (the penguins) uspstage everyone else.
Ah, but Kung Fu Panda doesn't do that. It is a period piece, more or less, with all of the characters firmly entrenched in a village in China, much as in any live-action kung fu movie. And while much of the humour is verbal, it's equally physical, sometimes at the same time. In fact, for all of the brouhaha about Madagascar's cartooniness, I'd say Kung Fu Panda comes closest in practice to the Looney Tunes comedy aesthetic; that is, in making the timing and snappiness of the drawings as important as the timing and snappiness of the jokes, balancing quiet with loud, broad with subtle, and seen with unseen. Mix that in with crackling action scenes that can get laughs without sacrificing tension, and you've got—surprise!—an enjoyable animated comedy.
As much as I enjoyed it, though, I'm a little disappointed. The introductory scene, which is a tight bit of stylized hand-drawn animation, was so well done I was let down when we got to the CGI. As much as I enjoyed Kung Fu Panda as it was, I'd really like to see the movie they were hinting at.