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.