When I started Random Richards Reviews, one of my original goals was to write an essay about Kung Fu Panda. With the teaser for Kung Fu Panda 3 coming up, now is the perfect time to talk about it. The reason it took so long to get to writing it was because I was looking for an aspect to the first two films others haven’t talked about. Others have already talked about the gorgeous animation, awesome fight scenes, hilarious comic scenes and strong mythology. Others have already written essays about how well written the characters are. What people don’t talk about is how these movies are a game changer for DreamWorks animation. Yes, I believe Kung Fu Panda changed the way DreamWorks Animation makes its movies. Looking at the other animated films from the studio; I noticed significant differences between films before and after it in terms of storytelling, animation style and even humor.
The first to change was the humor. DreamWorks animation studios have had a reputation for its pop culture references. Ever since Shrek took aim at Disney tropes, DreamWorks’s movies have been filled with jokes aimed at pop culture. On one hand, it did help them stand out as an animation studio. But it has also led to as many misses(Shark Tale, Bee Movie) as hits(Over the Hedge, Madagascar). Plus, the films weren’t at the same level as the first two Shrek movies. The only exception was Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were rabbit, but then again it had already gained popularity with its short films.
At first, Kung Fu Panda itself was intended to go the same route with it parodying martial arts movies. But then along came co-director John Stevenson, who wanted a more epic movie. He has said in interviews, “I wasn’t interested in making fun of martial arts because I really think they can be great, they can be as good as any genre movie when they’re done properly.” So he and Mark Osbourne avoided pop culture references and instead made the comedy more character oriented. Nearly every character gets a laugh, from Po’s(Jack Black)bumbling fan boy enthusiasm to Master Shifu(Dustin Hoffman) chagrined double takes. Even Master Oogway(Randall Duk Kim) gets a few jokes, especially when he takes forever to blow out the candles.
If you look at DreamWorks’s movies afterwards, Pop culture is nearly none existent. That’s mostly because most of them are their own culture. This brings up what also makes Kung Fu Panda so special; the environment. China is animated with such beauty from the golden skies to the rustic architecture. Plus, the Valley of Peace seems like such a warm and inviting place you wish you could visit. Plus, there is such a deep rooted culture, even the weapons have a history to them.
Later films have their own sense of culture and unique environments that fleshes it out. How To Train Your Dragon has Scottish Viking mythology to run on in this little village of Berk. Legend of the Guardians takes classic characters including Santa Claus and the Sandman and gives them a unique twist, each with their own special worlds. Even Shrek spinoff Puss in Boots creates its own world paying tribute to swashbuckling tales of Zorro. They are so fascinating and fleshed out that we absorb ourselves into these worlds.
And finally, the Directors and writers Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel brought focus back on storytelling, when there was a little too much focus on jokes. When I look at most reviews of Shrek and Shrek 2, they tend to focus mostly on the jokes. They tend to forget that while the films clearly made fun of Disney, they also had a well written story with heart and wit, a world that you could identify as Shrek and entertaining and likable characters. In a way, the success of Kung Fu Panda served as a reminder of how much impact a compelling story can have on an audience. And films like How to Train Your Dragon and Legends of the Guardians finding a special place in audience’s hearts, it’s clear DreamWorks animation has kept that reminder to heart. And these films have inserted themselves into pop culture whether it’s a baseball player being nicknamed Kung Fu Panda or a hoodie designed to look like Toothless or a guy cosplaying as Jack Frost at comic cons. With plans for Po’s journey to be a six-movie series, I’m anxious to see what adventures lay ahead.