Kung Fu Panda (2008 movie)…

Kung Fu Panda (2008 movie) after the break…

Kung Fu Panda (2008 movie)…

I’ve always likened the CGI cartoon studios Pixar & Dreamworks to the old feud between cartoon studios Walt Disney & Warner Brothers. After all, the similarities are eeriely similar:

  • Walt Disney cartoons never went after topical jokes; Warner Brothers slathered theirs with nothing but topical jokes. Exceptions exist on each side, granted, but those were the trends.
  • Warner Brothers cartoons was notorious for their overabundance of slapstick humor while Walt Disney cartoons used such humor sparingly. Again, exceptions exist but taking each studios body of work as a whole, those were the trends.
  • Finally, it just seemed as though Walt Disney cartoons “tried harder” – They were better animated, had better stories & were simply more memorable after the last frame then Warner Brothers cartoons. Watching a Walt Disney cartoon was like watching a 5-minute movie; Watching a Warner Brothers cartoon was like eating fast food – Tasty, satisfying but ultimately empty & forgettable. A Walt Disney cartoon just looked as though it kept trying to transcend the medium of animation while a Warner Brothers cartoon simply shrugged, smiled & went on with their “Frying pan into the face” routine.

Take the above examples & you can eeriely replace “Walt Disney” with “Pixar” & “Warner Brothers” with “Dreamworks” with little effort & almost no degradation in the accuracy of statement.

However, even though Warner Brothers was always playing second-fiddle to Walt Disney in quality… Well, they didn’t have to. In fact, there was one time when Warner Brothers made a cartoon that at least attempted to take on Walt Disney right in their strong suit.

The cartoon “The Barbershop of Seville” bucked many cliches that Warner Brothers cartoons tended to have. Perhaps it was because the production was an adaptation (a cartoonish one, though, to be certain) of a previously-released work. Perhaps because it was a direct snub to Walt Disney’s attempt at an animated “EPCOT Center,” the art film “Fantasia” (which, now because of changing morales, has more then just a few skeletons hanging in it’s closet).

Granted, even that cartoon has it’s fair share of slapstick humor & physical comedy. However, there are a few moments in that cartoon where the characters try to transcend their more comedic roots. Smiles are replaced with frowns, comedy is momentarily eclipsed with tragedy &, for the briefest of moments… You forget that you’re watching the iconic cartoon characters of Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd.

There is a quality, to be certain, with delivering the lowbrow slapstick humor & the topical jokes. However, that quality isn’t as mystifying as when artists try to transcend their medium & make people forget that they’re watching lines drawn on paper or pixels rendered on computer, nor is it as easy to accomplish as the comedic kick in the groin.

Fast-forward to our modern times where the CGI animation studios Pixar & Dreamworks have taken over where their predecessors Walt Disney & Warner Brothers once resided. Dreamworks can proclaim that they’ve got larger gross revenues; The “Shrek” franchise alone has created well over one billion dollars in worldwide revenue, consisting mainly on a diet of pop-culture references. However, Pixar can lay claim to innumerable awards including the most coveted award of all – The word-of-mouth perception that their animated films reek of the quality that Walt Disney used to take for granted decades earlier.

So a movie like “Kung Fu Panda” is almost oddly refreshing, especially coming from a studio like Dreamworks where pop cultural references are the rule rather then the exception. Here is a film like “The Barbershop of Seville” where all of the topical puns & other conventions that Dreamwork films have take a backseat to a new convention: An actual storyline.

Granted, people who rely upon a Dreamworks film for their slapstick humor & topical puns will still find plenty of “kick-in-the-groin” humor, followed by the “must-be-a-movie-star” voice acting now (sadly) synonymous with animated films from any studio. However, just like the parent that fills the dinner plate with french fries, there’s also more then a bit of room for green beans as well.

The story for “Kung Fu Panda” isn’t exactly original &, if you want to go to an amusing length, you could even take most of it straight from the pages of “Star Wars” itself: An accomplished warrior finds a young child who becomes incredibly gifted at combat. However, when rebuked for a final honor, is corrupted by desire of that honor & becomes evil. That same accomplished warrior then eventually finds another person who, although initially very unqualified, eventually becomes skilled enough to defeat the villain.

To be certain, there’s a lot to like about this movie. I really appreciated the story’s core message about desire & how desire could easily turn into very unhealthy lust. I thought that, given Dreamworks’ prior track record, it was an incredibly mature message for them to hang an entire movie on.

Unfortunately, unlike Star Wars, it never truly follows through with that message. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker never “kills” Darth Vader in the traditional sense of actually physically killing him. Instead, by not killing him, Luke “kills” the concept of Darth Vader by having Darth Vader gain sympathy for the plight of Luke when he is assailed by the much more powerful Emperor.

In “Kung Fu Panda,” there really is a fight & there really is a physical defeat which sort of deflates the entire purpose of the message. Had the filmmakers been braver, why not have Po (the Panda Bear accidentally fingered to defeat the villain) outsmart the villain, the villain being blinded by his lust for the “Dragon Scroll.” Really, in a sense, the “Dragon Warrior” (Po) should have proven that he was the best warrior to defeat the villain since he had the least to lose by realizing that there was no secret in the Dragon Scroll – The Dragon Scroll is meaningless to him as it was an object that he had not sacrificed to get. He was the most capable of throwing it away & using it to manipulate the villain to defeat himself. However, the filmmakers didn’t go that route, going for a much more conventional finale instead. A pity.

Still, there is much to like about this film. Is it a Pixar film? No. However, it is nice to see that even Dreamworks can dredge up a “Barbershop of Seville” of it’s own on occasion, even if, after all of the fancy bells & whistles, it is still just a “Barbershop of Seville” amongst a sea of topical & slapstick humor.

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