Po Ping (Jack Black), a giant panda, spends his days at his father’s noodle shop dreaming of Kung Fu fame and success. When the spiritual leader of the valley, Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) decides its time to choose the fabled Dragon Warrior, the valley expects one of the furious five-Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Viper, and Crane- to take the role. After all, they are the sworn protectors of the region.
But it’s the clumsy Po who literally explodes his way into the tournament and takes the crown. He’s got a lot to prove, especially to Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and the Furious Five. When an imminent threat enters the valley, Po will have to step up and truly become The Dragon Warrior.
When it comes to daydreaming, Po (Jack Black) is a pro. That’s what he does all day as he makes the same special noodle recipe perfected by his goose father, Mr. Ping (James Hong). In this world of anthropomorphic animals, the film realistically captures the mundanity of life we all encounter as we dream of more for ourselves.
This changes when it’s announced that a tournament will take place to determine the Dragon Warrior who will possess the Dragon Scroll, which is the key to imminent power. Po wants in, but his entry isn’t too smooth. Regardless, the ageing spiritual leader of the valley, Master Oogway, choses Po as Dragon Warrior, much to everyone’s shock. How’s this klutzy, large panda going to do anything?
The film follows the underdog’s journey as nobody thinks he’s worthy of the title. This is emphasized by Master, Shifu, who is meant to mold him. Once a big fan of the Furious Five fighting team, Po now endures hazing by the bitter clan. You kind of feel bad for Po as he sees how much of a fish out of water he is. Tigress (Angelina Jolie) in particular, isn’t his biggest fan.
But as time goes, the Five and Master Shifu find out that Po just needs a different approach to his training. When the threat of Tai Lung (Ian McShane), a crazed snow leopard who wants the Dragon Scroll for himself, becomes real, everybody will have to bring their A game. Though the film doesn’t go as deep into heavy themes such as bullying and body shame, it balances these arcs out well, for a children’s film.
The screenplay underwent various influences in the four-year process of developing this film. When co-Director John Stevenson changed the direction of the film from a Kung Fu spoof to a hero narrative wuxia epic, the tone shifted as well. The writing team behind the screenplay, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris adapted it from their own original story, making this their most commercially successful screenplay.
They maintained the characters while adding more authenticity to the setting and detail. The dialogue is lighthearted and gives a playful, childish tone, which is appropriate for the film. But there are universal themes such as adoption, destiny, self-acceptance and hard work that ground the film’s content.
The duo was assisted in the jokes department by some writers from the hit comedy animated series, King of The Hill. Despite the target audience, there is a level of emotional depth in the script, mostly coming from exchanges had with Master Oogway and his successor, Master Shifu. We also get some deep realizations within Po’s character arc towards the end, when he develops a desire to uncover his origins.
Characters and acting
Jack Black shines as the lead protagonist, Po. His voice acting skills are pretty notable and he gives solid delivery and believability with the jokes. Po is a guy we all root for. He’s a bit aloof at times, often to the point of annoyance, but his intentions are in the right place and his arc is fully developed. Then there’s Dustin Hoffman’s red panda, Master Shifu. Dustin’s rugged, sage like voice lends heaviness to the ultra-serious character.
The Furious Five all have distinct personalities, namely Tigress’s (Angelina Jolie) cutthroat dryness, Viper’s (Lucy Liu), shy demeanor, Mantis’s (Seth Rogen) silent sleuth persona, the practical but lighthearted Crane (David Cross) and the legendary Kung Fu master himself, Jackie Chan as the slightly aloof Monkey. Kids will have a fun time trying to determine which member of the Furious Five they’d like to be.
Music and cinematography
The directing duo John Stevenson and Mark Osborne created the most grueling DreamWorks animated feature yet. This film took four years to develop with heavy research on Chinese art and architecture being carried out by Art Director Tang Heng and Production designer, Raymond Zibach. The animators even took a six-hour kung Fu class to further dedicate themselves in the visual process.
There’s’ a reason why the depth of the film’s emotions are amplified by the music. This film was scored by multiple award winner, Hans Zimmer, who paved the way for many film scorers after him. He collaborated with John Powell and even visited China, immersing himself in the musical culture and the China National Symphony Orchestra to bring an authentic, culturally accurate sound to the film.
One thing that really shines is the stunning animation and camera movement. The immense focus it took to effectively animate peach blossoms and the stunning Jade Palace is second to none.
The attention to detail, emotional tones and cultural relevance helps this children’s animated action adventure something that adults can enjoy. If you’re looking for a funny, laid back viewing experience then Kung Fu Panda is the right diagnosis.