Review by Boniface
Kung Fu Panda (2008, rated PG) represented a turning point for Dreamworks, which had little to boast about by way of animated films: Antz, Chicken Run, Madagascar, all of which received a lukewarm receptionf rom audiences. I suppose two exceptions would be Joseph: King of Dreams and Prince of Egypt, which are enjoyed intensely by religious audiences but didn't have a broader appeal. The most notable success of Dreamworks was the Shrek franchise, which despite being profitable, is not what I would call a family friendly series of films, which I will have to go into another time.
But in Kung Fu Panda, we have something notably different - a film that has excellent animation, a great storyline, is family friendly and, best of all, is just a great movie. The plot of the film centers on a good natured panda named Po, whose most definable characteristic is his tremendous appetite. Nevertheless, he also has a great love for kung-fu, which leads him on a series of misadventures that wind up with him being chosen "Dragon Warrior", a kind of kung-fu messiah who is bound to defeat Ti-Lung, a kung-fu "Darth Vader" character, one who mastered the arts of kung-fu but fell through pride ans went over to the dark side. Throughout the film, Po has to discover his own worth and learn to turn his natural flaws into assets in order to win the respect of his comrades and truly become the Dragon Warrior.
Po is the real asset in this film. While many animated protagonists are serious in demeanor and have to be paired up with a sidekick for comic relief (think Marlin and Dory in Finding Nemo, Woody and Buzz in Toy Story, or Sully and Mike in Monsters Inc), Po himself is the comic relief, and as such needs nothing else to support him. And, as I mention below, the comic elements are essential in this movie and keep it from becoming too heavy for young viewers. Even in the most intense parts of the film, Po is always lightening the mood and keeping the film well balanced in terms of its atmosphere.
One way this film could have gone bad is with adult humor. So many of these new animated films, especially other Dreamworks films like Shrek, try to work in adult humor into the plot (Shrek and Donkey walk up to Lord Farquad's castle - upon seeing the massively tall structure, Shrek says, "Do you think he's compensating for something?"). Thankfully, there is nothing like this in Kung-Fu Panda, so you don't have to worry about dialogue.
There are only two real objections to the film, but they depend on your personal level of tolerance. One if the violence. This is a real kung-fu movie, with all that entails. The fighting is very fast, and very intense in some places, perhaps too intense for very young children. But on the plus side, the constant comedy relief provided by Po serves to lighten the mood of what would otherwise be several very heavy scenes. Depending on how your kids do with cartoon violence, this may not even be an issue.
The second possible issue is the very subtle presence of oriental mysticism, as evidenced by a few scenes of the characters meditating on "inner peace" and the presence of the Yin-Yang sign at a few key moments in the plot. For me, this is something I have just come to accept in martial arts films. The film takes place in ancient China, and I am not surprised or offended that the writers chose to incorporate Chinese mysticism into the film, just like I am not surprised or offended that Lawrence of Arabia depicted Muslims practicing Islam. There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of "inner peace" itself, taken in a Christian context; the film could serve as a platform from which to begin a discussion about what Christians and Confucians or Buddhists mean by "inner peace." Or, more broadly, how two different religious groups can use the same vocabulary but mean different things by it. Either way, I don't think the very subtle presence of this sort of thing is a real negative for the film, but it depends on what you allow your children to watch and what sorts of discussions you can have with them. It doesn't bother me, and three years of watching this film has not caused my children to convert to Confucianism.
I give Kung-Fu Panda my highest rating, 3/3.