Panda'ing to your best instincts

I am told that it is usual in Japan to retitle a Western movie in translation, so that the audience is absolutely clear what it’s about. Hence The Bridges of Madison County would have become something like Older Woman Falls in Love with Travelling Photographer.

Now I like an odd, allusive title, especially for an offbeat kind of film, but for the “mass market” there is a great advantage in having a directly self-descriptive name. Whenever I mentioned to anyone in the past few weeks that I had seen Kung Fu Panda, they laughed—so the title is the movie’s first successful joke. And once the person has laughed and understood that Kung Fu Panda is an animated movie (which most seemed able to infer right away, even before its poster appeared on the bus shelters), they are perfectly clear about the precise nature of the film.

So, in that respect, it’s all pretty predictable. If you correctly presume that the film is a mainstream animated American movie about a panda who does kung fu, you could probably also predict how it’s going to play out and what its message is going to be. The panda is likely to be an underdog figure, disadvantaged in some way; through the guidance of wise elders and the pressures of adversity, he will, however, overcome his doubts and limitations to achieve self-confidence and, indeed, power. This power he will finally be able to use, when desperate circumstances arise, against the villain or villains. He will triumph and everyone will love and respect him—and probably applaud en masse. The message will be your standard guff about believing in yourself, following your dream, yadda yadda, perhaps with a little bit of “the force is strong with him” chucked in. (Where did George Lucas get that mumbo-jumbo in the first place, if not from old martial arts movies?)

And so it all transpires. But the predictable overview doesn’t account for the sheer momentum of the thing, the splendid animation and the fact that the filmmakers (Shrek-makers DreamWorks) have managed to retell an old story with a fair amount of wit and style. They are obviously conscious that they are dealing with a well-trodden genre, or at least not attempting to hide that fact and pretend it’s all highly original, and they are prepared to layer that perception with some irony. It helps that they are dealing with a genre that originally came from the East, so the underbelly of what used to be called chinoiserie and later orientalism can be tickled as well. This produces a visually enticing exoticism while, as noted, sticking to the standard pieties of American movie morality (with only the slightest deviation en route to give it all a bit of the flavour of the mystical east). The package as a whole is highly enjoyable.

The kung fu panda himself happens to be named Po, as in the river in Italy, or perhaps in a reference to Bob Dylan’s song, Po’ Boy. For Po is a bit of a po’ boy, working in his dad’s noodle bar, even though his dad is a goose and Po keeps bumping his head against the ceiling or perpetrating other clumsinesses. That is, when he’s not fantasising about being the Great Invincible Dragon Warrior or some such hero of kungfudom.

We are not informed of how a goose fathered a panda—or what became of mom. Maybe she was a grizzly bear or something like that, and if you cross a goose and a grizzly bear you get a panda. Certainly, this is a relatively multicultural vision of ancient-slash-legendary China, though most of the villagers are portrayed as pigs. Po’s heroes, a Famous Five of Fu-Fighters, are variously specied—there’s a tigress, a mantis, a crane, a monkey and a viper. The wizened elder of the local palace of martial artistry is a tortoise, which is amusing, and in the Yoda position is a smallish, furry animal with big ears whose species I could not determine.

These varied characters are voiced by a range of actors from across the East/West spread, so the cross-cultural vibe is extended into the accents. For instance, Angelina Jolie voices one of the five, but Jackie Chan voices another. This is a nice idea, I suppose, though nobody would believe that voice work (in English) is Chan’s strongest suit. Other voice roles go to the likes of Lucy Liu and Randall Duk Kim. Best of all, we have Dustin Hoffman as the Yoda, who has a nice line in kvetching. Jack Black does Po, which I think is a case of matching overweight dorky guy to overweight dorky panda as Black extends his actorly range just that little bit beyond the boundaries of Nacho Libre.

Hollywood is deeply in love with the overweight dorky guy at the moment; he’s the protagonist of so many comedies and, as far as one can tell, it’s all about the overweight dorky guy getting the girl, or getting sympathy if he doesn’t. At least in Kung Fu Panda we’re spared such romantic boredom, and the central figure is in fact a panda, so we don’t have to actually look at Jack Black. Pandas have notoriously delicate love lives, though, and maybe we’ll get there with Po—Kung Fu Panda VI: The Reticent Virgin, perhaps? Until then, we have much fun to be going on with: good jokes, zippy action and dazzling animation. That’s what Kung Fu Panda is for and it’s done with such zest one can only enjoy.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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