Kung Fu Panda
by Laura Tucker
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While normally the martial arts films we see that have an underdog type theme feature a small, wiry hero, the latest from Dreamworks, Kung Fu Panda, features a portly hero—a panda bear—and who better to voice a portly hero these days than Jack Black?
The underdog theme is still alive and well, despite the panda bear having a much rounder frame than we would expect from our accidental hero. While it’s never explained why, other than a slight hint towards the end of the film, Po is a panda bear, the son of a goose in the noodle-vending business. The father dreams of his son someday taking over the business, but Po has other dreams, that of being a kung fu expert.
When Master Oogway, a turtle voiced by Randall Duk Kim, dreams that the deposed Tai Lung, a snow leopard voiced by Ian McShane, will be escaping an ultra-secure prison (which reminds me of the place the witch has Dorothy imprisoned in Wizard of Oz), he orders Shifu to appoint the next Dragon Warrior, who will then release the Dragon Scroll and find the answer to defeat Tai Lung.
As the news that the Dragon Warrior will be named reaches the villagers, everyone flocks to the palace to hear the news, including Po. Shifu is to make a decision among his pupils (nicknamed the Furious Five): Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), and Monkey (Jackie Chan), yet by accident Po gets in the way and is named the Dragon Warrior instead. Shifu and Po, and nearly everyone else, claim it’s a mistake to name the out-of-shape panda to the position of facing off against Tai Lung, but Master Oogway assures them that there are no mistakes.
Shifu struggles to teach the out-of-shape Po kung fu and has setbacks, such as the panda bear going in the kitchen and ransacking it, eating everything he can find (including the fruit from the Sacred Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom). In the end, everyone learns a few different morals, one of which is that anyone can be a hero, and you don’t have to be perfect to do so. The other has to do with believing in yourself, a moral that actually comes into play in standard martial arts training.
Much of this film connects with martial arts training. As a student and instructor, I can’t help but look for those things watching a martial arts film, even if it’s just a cartoon. The cute little animals figure heavily into the belief system, with some systems relying on it more than others. Even some of the techniques seen here, while obviously fiction, yet are based very much in fact.
Despite this, Kung Fu Panda is still a great movie for everyone, whether they have a previous introduction to martial arts or not. It has the slacker humor prevalent in most Jack Black films, yet done in a very endearing way. Combined with the fight scenes and morals, it almost takes on a Karate Kid feel, with the student and mentor feel to it, and while Po is never asked to wax on/wax off, Shifu does find other clever ways to reach him.
I don’t think I’m giving away any big plot device here to say that with both films, Karate Kid and Kung Fu Panda, you leave the theater the same way, knowing that there is hope for the underdog after all.
Laura Tucker is a freelance writer providing reviews of movies and television, among other things, at Viewpoints and Reality Shack, and operates a celebrity gossip blog, Troubled Hollywood. She is also an Associate Instructor and 1st dan black belt in tae kwon do with South Elgin Martial Arts.
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