'Kung Fu Panda' a classic?

by John Anderson

Newsday (MCT)

2 June 2008


Plenty of adolescent boys probably think of Angelina Jolie as having been created on a computer - the computer of their own hormone-addled minds. But there she was at Cannes last month, doing the French poodle-and-pony show for a computerized cartoon film she wasn’t even in. Except for her sultry voice.

“It is a real pleasure as a mom to be able to bring your kids to a film that you also really feel is a good film and goes back to the classic animated films,” she said, during the press blitz igniting the international launch of “Kung Fu Panda,” the highly hyped DreamWorks feature, which cross-pollinates Bruce Lee with your Teddy bear.

“RATATOUILLE” The hero of Pixar’s 2007 tour de force was a French rat who wanted to be a chef. Po, the hero of “Kung Fu Panda,” is a noodle chef who becomes a kung fu fighter. Food references aside, ignoring the dictates of one’s species leads, in these cases, to movie heroism. “KUNDUN” Like “Kung Fu Panda,” Martin Scorsese’s biopic is about the selection of an unlikely candidate, Llhamo Dondrub, for a lofty place in a classic tradition. In “Kung Fu Panda,” Po is a noodle maker chosen to carry on a great martial-arts tradition. In “Kundun,” Llhamo becomes the Dalai Lama. “DRUNKEN MASTER”/“LEGEND OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER” Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan is as close to an animated cartoon character as a human being can be, and these two masterpieces of comedy kung fu are obvious influences on “Kung Fu Panda.” Not coincidentally, all three films include the snake, crane, tiger and monkey styles of fighting (see characters in “KFP”). “TRAPPED” (episode of “The Honeymooners,” debut April 14, 1956) Ralph Kramden, who has witnessed a bank robbery, is tailed home by two gangsters who want to keep him quiet. They learn not to mess with the fat panda of Madison Avenue bus drivers.

“Kung Fu Panda” is one of the last 2D films DreamWorks Animation reportedly plans to make, but when Jolie said “classic,” what did she mean? Two very different animated movies were capturing the imagination, or at least dominating discussions, along the Croissette last month: “Panda,” of course, and “Waltz With Bashir,” an Israeli-made, animated documentary about the massacre of Palestinians in 1982 Lebanon. While the latter may, ultimately, be deemed a classic over time, it’s not exactly what Jolie had in mind.

No, “classic” in the enchanted realm of big-budget, big-screen cartoon projects - which might include, perhaps, star Jack Black cavorting with dancing pandas on the French Riviera - is more about pushing the same audience buttons via the same emotional devices and structures.

Like an audience at the now-104-year-old “Peter Pan” being asked to clap their hands and believe in fairies (“Save Tink!!”), faith is always a major factor in the way the animated feature plays out on an impressionable audience. What changes is the ambience, the animal species of the characters, and of course, the filmmaking technology. What seldom changes is the underdog status and the Joseph Campbell-esque hero’s journey.

Take Po (voice of Black), the Ursa Major of the current movie season and the scion of a noodle-making clan in ancient China. His most distinguishing characteristic seems to be that he is the laziest bamboo-eater in Asia. So when greatness is thrust upon him in “Kung Fu Panda,” the outlook isn’t good.

Among recent releases, “Barnyard” - in which Otis the chronically laid-back male cow (please don’t ask) inherits leadership of the farm - is close to the template for “Kung Fu Panda.” But it’s hardly the only example: “Ratatouille” presents an unavoidable comparison with “Panda” (and a box-office take it would like to emulate). In it, a French rat aspires to be a French chef. In light of that, a panda throwing spinning back-kicks seems relatively plausible.

Rooting for the impossible is a staple of animated “classics,” and with the exception of Bambi’s mother, setbacks are rare and unwelcome. “Aladdin’s” title hero had the entire economic system of ancient Persia to overcome. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” faced the tragedy of medieval birth defects. “The Lion King,” whose formula was so good it went from big screen to Broadway, was about Shakespearean-inspired chicanery on the savannah. “Antz” was about a nonconformist insect, with the voice of perpetual fringe-dweller Woody Allen. “The Iron Giant” concerned intolerance (exhibited toward a 100-foot robot, and his tiny champion). “Happy Feet” was about personal choice in creative expression. Song? Dance? Pick one!

Some animated heroes - Wallace, of “Wallace & Gromit,” being a prime example - aren’t even aware they’re underdogs. (The entire cast of “Toy Story,” unbeknown to its inanimate inmates, is a “Cuckoo’s Nest”-inspired ward’s-worth of weirdos.)

But filmmakers have also taken the opposite tack - putting the privileged in the unaccustomed position of being oppressed. In these cases, the audience is, presumably, expected to sympathize with the masses (or as much mass as has been accumulated), while still harboring a sympathetic feeling for the protagonist - who is getting his or her comeuppance.

In terms of “classic” fiction, this is absolutely Classical with a capital C. In “Cars,” for instance, the arrogant racer Lightning McQueen gets in trouble via his own hubris, and must learn humility (via a junkyard full of wheezing wrecks) before he can emerge triumphant. In “Flushed Away,” Roddy St. James is an upper-crusty rodent whose arrogant veneer gets washed and rinsed during a highly unpleasant albeit adventurous trip through London’s sewer system.

Where “Kung Fu Panda” separates itself from the pack, almost all observers and critics have noted, is in its furious action and glorious, if computer-driven animation. It’s not “Snow White” but then, who would want to market the naive, unironic, product-placement-free “Snow White” now? What you want is a movie with familiar emotional tugs, easy-to-digest morals, huggable characters and a few bad guys being clobbered. And getting the imprimatur of the French doesn’t hurt, apparently.

“Being an official selection of the Cannes Film Festival is the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, of DreamWorks. “And it’s particularly unique when it’s a broad commercial movie as opposed to an art film. There’s tremendous, tremendous value to that.”

There’s also tremendous value in not messing with a time-honored formula.

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