How Kung Fu Panda Gets Fantasy Writing Right

Brilliantly concevied and executed, Kung Fu Panda soars as a Fantasy compared to The Forbidden Kingdom. And essentially, they have the same plot.

Take a fan of martial arts and make him the only one who can stop the big villain in a martial arts film.

The post-modernism of films is actually a delight to see–how “fans” are being incorporated into the films they love as plot and character. I’m sure it’s done well other places (most notably Galaxy Quest which takes actors from a show and puts them in reality, but also has a place for fans of the show as heroes too) but KFP does it with style, owing, I think, in no small part to the casting of Jack Black who has played a fan before: School of Rock and Tenacious D come to mind as well as Be Kind Rewind. So naturally, he’s cast as an adoring fan of Kung Fu–and of the Five heroes that protect the city. When he’s picked as the next Dragon Warrior, he has to learn how to become a warrior. Here’s how I think they did it, the writers, and Black, to make it more believable, more fun, and a better overall handling of the same plot from The Forbidden Kingdom.

1. Po’s training is designed for Po. First this is a comedy, so the training is a parody of Martial Arts films, and a parody of the newbie getting quick-trained by the Master. But Jason’s training in TFK is just standard training with looks of disapproval and lots of complaining and then an unbelievable transformation… Po has to be trained (SPOILER!!) using food–his desire. His training reflects his personality–so in a way, we learn more about Po through his training. For Jason in TFK, his training has no reflection of either his masters or him, and it is merely a trudge to get him to the plot. For KFP, Po’s training furthers the plot and the Po we see after training is still Po–vulnerable, quirky, just better with movees that have little style but are fun to watch…

2. Both have to believe in themselves, but Po offers the more believable moments of doubt and overcoming that doubt.

3. Jackie Chan is in both of these movies playing a Monkey like person–strange. But KFP knows that they keep the dialogue to a minimum on Jackie. And Dustin Hoffman as Shifu is a much more layered character than Jackie Chan’s mentor in TFK. There is a troubled past, some disappointment, a reason he’s gruff, and the promise that he has a character arc too….

4. Other characters have arcs as well–Tigress, Oogway the Turtle, Tai Lung the villain–they all have their pasts, and how they are connected, and how they affect each other. Yes, the crane, viper and monkey and mantis have little to no growth, but by far KFP handles more rounded characters than TFK even tried to.

5. Though we are told that Po will save the day, we don’t know how–and we really never do until he does it. We can’t see that Tai Lung can be stopped, until we watch how it happens. This is brilliant as there is only a little foreshadowing, and most of the time we are discovering Po’s potential as he does.

6. Jason in TFK is a big fan of Martial Arts Films, and Po is the fan of the Five. In KFP, they play up the fandom aspect, making it a part of Po’s character, and why he has an inferiority complex to go with his Hero Worship. Jason rarely exhibits his fanboyness–he’s too busy being a stock character, and never realizing what makes him unique–cause no writer has written it for him. he has two or three jokes in the middle of his training related to his knowledge of a certain move. But the film could have capitalized on Jason’s worship and film knowledge, but after the opening sequence, Jason could have been any kid. With Po, we know his worship is what drives the film…he believes in these heroes, wants to be one of them, is devastated when they don’t like him, and runs when he is burdened with doing what his heroes could not do.

7. Po is likeable. Unlike Jason in TFK, there are no insurmountable character flaws in Po–he just has self-doubt, a low self-image, a bit overweight. But he wants to be better. He tries, he never gives up, and he is thwarted more than once from getting what he wants. He has a dad that loves him, but a future in fast food that many of us would identify with. Jason has that awful moment when he takes the thugs directly to the old man and lets them beat him up…. viewers never recover from that. At least, I didn’t. It was unnecessary.

So, further comparisons might be done on the two movies, but I was thrilled with Panda. And yeah, it was cartoon—but cartoons should never be able to do more with plot or character than live action. In fact, if they do, it really shows the shallowness and deficit of the live action. Cartoons can do more with style and camera shots–and making animals out of everyone–but plot and character aren’t necessarily strengthened with cartoon. So, KFP didn’t win over TFK because of animation—but because the writing was SO much better.

How not to write Fantasy: The Forbidden Kingdom

The movie is based on one of the oldest known novels, Journey to the West, a Chinese Epic. Written down finally in the 1590s from oral stories dating much farther back, it’s 100 chapters long and is one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature, so any screenwriter would have challenges in writing up even a portion of it for screen. Whether The Forbidden Kingdom works on a literature-to-movie basis or not is not my point below. It doesn’t matter to me if the movie represents any part of the classic novel itself, or whether the Monkey King is true to character as depictd by Wu Cheng’en, the purported author of the novel.

To me the problem is always how the film stands up as a story. And here for me the movie serves as a good example on how not to write a Fantasy.

1. There is very little character set-up for the main character and the character that does develop is unlikeable. His name is so forgettable that I have forgotten it. Josh or Seth watches a LOT of kung-fu movies–we know this because of his room decor, posters and posters of old films. He rents movies. He has a thin relationship to the old shopkeeper–who seems to run a kung-fu Movie Warehouse and Knick Knack store. The movie seems in a hurry to get us to the “object”–the staff–and so makes Josh/Seth see it through a door that’s been left open, pick it up off the floor, and we get to feel the “weird” importance of the object. In the next scene, unknown girl gets Josh/Seth to tell us what he does and why he lives there–she’s so much a schill that she doesn’t even scream when Josh is then beat up by a gang of thugs. He doesn’t react much either. When they discover he has rented movies from Shopkeeper’s Kung-fu Emporium, they assume he can get them in to see the old guy and rob him. He walks them straight to the shop, tricks the shopkeeper, and watches as they beat him up.

Okay, I don’t like this character already. He’s shuffled through his plot points like an understudy during a rehearsal (and then you’ll stumble here and then you’ll look pathetic here and then ….) and allowed to have no reaction to what the director wants us to think as weakness. But this isn’t just weakness of strength and skill–as the movie makes it out to be–but HUGE weakness of character. He doesn’t have to lead Thugs to the Shop. He has taken thugs to an old man to beat him up. Without more plot to tell me he was forced or coerced, he’s an accomplice. I could have actually liked him if they had beat him up because he hadn’t led them to the old man. But now I think he’s worthless. The Thugs are merely there so we can (spoiler!) see them beat up at the end.

We know nothing about Josh/Seth but that he has an addiction to Kung-Fu. No background, no relationships–he’s a cypher. His choices are to not choose. I don’t believe he doesn’t try to run or fight back against the thugs. I don’t believe he would lead them to this shopkeeper. I don’t believe he’d stand back and let the shopkeeper get beat up. And if I DID, that would make Josh/Seth into a worthless person, not a sympathetic one, and not one who gets to go to 13th Century China, or is that 12th? Anyway.

On another note, the only movies that the writers have seen are the Karate Kid movies—Josh/Seth is a dead ringer for Ralph Macchio, and the beat-up gang scene and the old man are plot point for plot point Karate Kid; even Josh/Seth’s past–a kid from New Jersey–is straight from KK’s bio.

2. Pick up Companions at the Corner of First and Main. Well, Joseph Campbell would have been happy. Naive character, after going unwillingly into adventure, is taken to an otherworldly bar. I was waiting for the Star Wars Cantina theme here as Josh/Seth tried to get Jackie Chan to help him. All the main companions will say no first and then there they are marching with him. We merely pick them up as the plot goes on, and we pick them up for no reason. There are no extra characters–those we might pick up, those who might become important–just the Main Characters and the Villains.

3. Josh/Seth’s unprecedented rise to Kung-fu competency: never before has one mastered Kung Fu so quickly except in the Matrix. There are some funny moments here, more than anywhere else in the movie, genuinely good dialogue that plays on J/S’s knowledge of kung-fu moves, or rather the names for moves. This should have been a constant shtick–J/S quoting movie references, etc and pitting them against “reality”. Unfortunately, he seems to know as much about those movies as Wikipedia could tell him. He can list off moves. But what do his movies tell him about plots, expectations, characters?

4. None of the places are really used. I loved the movie, Hero, because each setting became a living character, part of the plot, and part of the action. Here a cherry blossom orchard is a backdrop. A pit that leads to magma is merely a piece of furniture–not a real obstacle for any of the fighting….there’s no threat that anyone will fall into that magma. A field of very long reeds/wheat/something is merely there to cut into for some training. Our characters go from sudden desert to sudden lush green hills–quite the ecosystem juxtapositioning.

5. The characters are plastic with plastic motives. Sparrow is out for revenge. Jackie Chan is along for the ride, perhaps to be the kid’s mentor, though we don’t know why. Jet Li is a monk seeking the staff. The Witch wants immortality–because everyone wants it (apparently there’s only enough juice to make one person eternal). The Jade Warlord wants the staff. The kid has to return the staff to “its rightful owner.” No one in the story thinks about the motivation they were handed on a card. No one thinks of turning back, of making a different decision, of negotiating a deal. There are NO complications. Fantasies can’t be built on a single plot system–with no twists. We know that the characters have to reach their destination–it’s in the script. I’m never in doubt because these aren’t real characters–they are an assembled entourage for the audience. They escort us through the plot–and, dang, they aren’t even that entertaining.

I almost walked out of the movie–it had nothing to hold my interest. Even the fight scenes. Nothing new was given to Kung-fu repetoire–not like the movies it purported to love in the opening credits. I got tired of watching the kung-fu kicks–and I can watch Matrix 1-3, which can’t be comparable to classic Kung Fu, several times!

There was one surprise in the movie, and I won’t give it away, but it wasn’t possible even by the movie’s logic. I think I will show this movie whenever I get half way through teaching a Fantasy writing course. Yes, it still manages to string together a bad plot, but getting to the end of your plot is not the end of your quest, Grasshopper.