When watching mass market animated features one must assume that it has been designed to delight child viewers with both upper- and lower-case comedy — slapstick gags and a happy, edifying ending — and entertain the adults with more grown up pop culture references and humor that don’t distract from or slow down the story, lest the little ones get confused. Kung Fu Panda does both of these quite well, from what I can tell. It is not a bad film from an aesthetic standpoint: the animation is vivd, the slapstick is successful, there are respectful references to a Third World culture, the characters seem to learn a lesson, etc, etc.
And this last part, the lesson, is precisely what I found troubling about Kung Fu Panda. If you blur your eyes (and your mind) a bit, it can almost be read as a sort of unintentional allegory for the absurdity of American Exceptionalism — that prerequisite belief for holding elected office in this wonderful nation.
Kung Fu Panda follows the story of Po, a fat wimpy panda voiced by Jack Black who loves kung fu in the same way that Lil Wayne loves skateboarding: he would very much like to be good at it, but doesn’t know anything about it and has never done it. And anyway has to help his adoptive father with his noodle bar (which, hip!). During a ceremony to name the next Dragon Warrior (the chosen kung fu master to protect the peaceful valley Po calls home), Po tries to sneak in and ends up being accidentally selected by a blindfolded senile turtle over all members of the much more qualified Furious Five — five anthropomorphic kung fu badasses that Po absolutely adores.
But this admiration doesn’t stop Po from accepting the accidental nomination, despite his terrible physical shape and complete lack of experience in everything kung fu — he has always really wanted this opportunity, and it was accidentally given to him by someone blind and senile, so he jumped at it despite the fact that he would find himself in direct competition with others who actually know what the fuck they are doing.
I’m not saying that Po is exactly like Rick Perry or Sarah Palin or any other half-wit that our senile and blind electorate has accidentally seized upon from a field of more qualified individuals — that would assume DreamWorks to be prophetic, and it would be heavy-handed. Po seems to represent, more generally, the attitude about our country that informs the rhetoric and policy that these candidates bring to the field. We are special — we know it because we can feel it — and the fact that we are special and want to succeed will make us victorious even if all other outside factors point to the sad conclusion that we are fat and lack the capability to get things done.
The introduction of an external threat — an impossibly badass lion with a Darth Vader/Obi sort of backstory — makes up the rest of the film. Will Po, who needs to protect the valley from this lion, be able to? It seems like he is too fat, clumsy, and untrained in kung fu to be up to the task until his master discovers that his gluttony can be used to trick him into learning kung fu (they fight over dumplings, basically).
When the lion returns to wreak havoc on the valley, Po eventually defeats him in part by using his fat belly as a trampoline.
Po is made into an unlikely hero not through hard work or by fighting his shortcomings, but by embracing them, and somehow turning his personal failures into a win. This absurd outcome is, from what I can tell, how conservative politicians think things will play out for the US should they get what they want — by doubling down on our worst qualities and never questioning why we deserve to be on top, we will defeat any and all outside threats.
What kinds of movies do Chinese kids watch, is what I’m trying to say, I guess.
Yes. Yes. It’s light and thin. Sometimes it won’t wake up from its naps!