Hey folks! I’m trying something new here. So for the first time, you get a post AND a video. How cool is that?
he Kung Fu Panda franchise is one of the most underrated of the last 10 years or so. I’m serious. Commercially, it’s a pretty big success and it also usually gets good reviews. Yet every time I talk about it, people look at me like I’m revealing some kind of fatal character flaw when in fact, I’m really, really glad that those movies exist. They’re well written, funny, visually beautiful, and they always leave me with a big goofy smile on my face. Kung Fu Panda 3, the latest installment in the series, is no exception to the rule.
To be honest, I think part of the reason why people don’t want to place their trust in this franchise is because of the title. I mean it does sound like some studio executive was like “hey, you know what people like? Pandas. And Kung Fu.” Actually, that’s not really far from the truth but more on that later.
So in case you missed the first two movies, Kung Fu Panda is about Po, a panda who goes from kung fu enthusiast to legendary kung fu warrior. In the first one, he uncovers the secret to the power of the Dragon Warrior to defeat disgraced kung fu disciple Tai Lung. In the second one, he learns to embrace his past to master inner peace and defeat evil lord Shen. Kung Fu Panda 3, co-directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, is about Po learning to be a master of chi to defeat supernatural warrior Kai.
I know what you’re thinking. Seems like the plot is pretty basic and the main character seems to flirt with power creep. Yes to the first, no to the second. It’s true that none of the Kung Fu Panda movies is not going to blow your mind with its narrative. That said, just because a story is simple and straight-forward doesn’t mean that it’s badly written. In Kung Fu Panda 3, the story expands on the Kung Fu Panda universe, flows well, and is supported by a brilliant cast and an excellent use of action and humour. I did notice the presence of one of my narrative pet peeves (the whole lie-reveal story around Poe’s father) but it was done well enough that I still consider it a minor flaw.
As for the characters, very few get any real development during the story. But even when they have all but one trait, they manage to be touching or at least fun to be around. I also regret that the female characters don’t get to do much but I’m willing to give it a pass: those ladies are pretty badass. Po himself is a compelling main character. He’s a bit of a goof, loves to eat, is a major fanboy but he is also a genuinely good guy. He loves his family, his friends, and his community. He easily finds his place in DreamWorks lineup of unlikely heroes, right beside Hiccup.
So it may surprise you that it all started inside the head of a Dreamworks executive. Like, this is actually how the project started. His basic idea was to do a spoof of kung fu movies. With a panda. The only reason Kung Fu panda is what it is today is because someone told him that this wasn’t exactly the idea of the year. That someone was John Stevenson, co-director of the first Kung Fu Panda movie. It probably went like this:
Dreamworks exec: Hey so I have an idea. People love kung fu. Let’s do a kung fu flick. It should be super funny, so the hero should be a panda, because pandas are fat and that will make it hilarious.
John Stevenson: Yes. Or. OR. We could juste make a good movie about a panda who loves kung fu.
Dreamworks exec: … Will he be fat and hilarious?
Stevenson: He will be exactly that.
And Po IS fat AND hilarious AND he loves kung fu. Instead of a potentially offensive parody of kung fu movies, what we got is an hommage to the wuxia genre.
The wuxia is a Chinese movie genre that tells the fantastic stories of heroes fighting against the forces of evil. It began as a novel genre and switched to film during the 20th century. Movies such as House of the Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon belong to it.
After the first Kung Fu Panda, the producers basically decided to make the whole franchise an ode to Chinese culture. They visited ChengDu with their team and upgraded Kung Fu Panda head of story Jennifer Yuh Nelson to director for the second installment. Note that Jennifer Yuh Nelson is not Chinese, but Korean. That said, she grew up watching martial arts movies and she definitely brought something to the next movies. Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3 showed a remarkable display of Chinese symbolism. For example, Shen, the antagonist in the second movie, is a white peacock, white in Chinese culture being the colour of death. This is reinforced by the fact that Shen is a master of cannons and gunpowder, which are, well, y’know, you can definitely kill people with these. In Kung Fu Panda 3, you’ll notice two major things: a, the use of jade as supernatural warrior Kai’s weapon, and b, the omnipresence of gold and yellow. Jade is a very important stone in Chinese culture. It’s basically considered like the incarnation of perfection. It’s considered a symbol of power, wealth, purity, and the wealthy used to make burial suits out of it. Neat. As for gold and yellow, those colours represent respectively God consciousness and a high social status. High as in only the Emperor and the royal family were allowed to wear it.
It’s not surprising that by the third movie, Kung Fu Panda had become one of the rare franchises to make it to the People’s Republic of China and a Chinese-American co-production. Kung Fu Panda 3 even features a song in mandarin chinese in its original English version. Pretty cool, eh?
Okay so at this point, I can see some of you beginning to groan and be all like “that’s just pendering”, (or pAndAring maybe :p) “they just want to get into China’s wallet and make more money.” Well, yeah, they do. Dreamworks is a movie studio and movie studios both need and really like money. That’s a given. But in this case, this is not a bad thing. If pendering to one particular country or culture leads to respectful, beautiful movies paying hommage to said country or culture, I’m all for it. I mean, can you imagine how good movies like, say, Pocahontas, would have been if the studio making them had wanted to please Native Americans?
Plus it’s not only about being faithful to Chinese culture. The Kung Fu Panda franchise definitely has some things to say about self-love. Respectively, believe in yourself (Kung Fu Panda), embrace your past and your pain (Kung Fu Panda 2), and just embrace everything that makes you who you are (Kung Fu Panda 3). It also matters to me a lot that Po is a big old panda. He’s fat and slow and not very bright but as much as people make fun of him at the beginning of the franchise, he becomes a respected, even admired member of his community without having to change who and what he is deep down. This is important. Plus Po ends up having two dads in the third movie. How awesome is that?
I’ll tell you how awesome it is. It’s Kung Fu Panda awesome. I can’t wait to see the fourth one.
Whenever that comes out.