Kung Fu Panda is the BEST WORST Franchise in Modern Entertainment


Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness

This may surprise you, but Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness was nominated for a daytime Emmy, along with the expected staples of The Simpsons, Regular Show, Bob’s Burgers, and South Park (South Park won). Regular Show may be somewhat unexpected as well, but it has a stronger pedigree than Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness ever had. I am reminded of the surprise nomination and victory of the severely underrated and inexplicably forgotten Penguins of Madagascar, which still has half a season left unaired. A movie-knock-off TV show that could be compared to some of TV’s more memorable and critically acclaimed animated shows on the air right now? It seems preposterous.

That’s the thing, though: Kung Fu Panda is simultaneously the most interesting and the most frustrating franchise in recent history. There are elements in it that match some of the best, most dramatic moments in entertainment history, and there are moments that are so terrible and embarrassing that it churns your stomach to see on the screen. The action sequences and endearing relationship-building are top-notch; the jokes and excessive silliness/stupidity can be unbearable. It makes it extremely difficult to recommend the films and/or TV show to people, knowing full well that the recommender is walking a thin line to the recommendee.

Kung Fu Panda is unique in some ways because not only does it ask “What if an immature little shit was the inevitable chosen one,” it asks “What if you had to live out the rest of your life with this immature, shitty chosen one?” It has that comic element for the kids, but it has a relatable notch for adults to latch onto – namely, the concept of working with someone you can’t stand, the guy or girl you work with everyday and compels you to ask yourself, “How in the hell is this person still working here?” Po may be the star, but his chosen one status doesn’t trump his childlike immaturity. He’s not an automatic savant – he’s still as goofy and moronic as he always was (but now an arrogant little shit), surrounded by six people who trained all their lives to reach their potential. The best moments are when these characters come face to face with this truth, Po included, and have to deal with it. It is nice, too, that Po’s free-spirit at times filters through these kung fu masters and loosens them up a bit, giving them a certain humanity within their “animality.” The worst moments are when Po does stupid shit for an extended period of time, and then its over.

That concept is why Kung Fu Panda managed to surpass its “talking animal” nonsense and approach a status of quality adult engagement. More often that not, any show or film that contains talking animals are regulated to young kids fare, and to be sure, it is a title that these talking animal pieces of entertainment deserve. It’s rare to see adults latch onto such types of entertainment outside of nostalgia (Mickey Mouse), comedic (Looney Tunes), or subversive (Animaniacs). It’s rarer still to have adults watch a talking animal show and claim “there’s something more going on here,” in terms of depth, character, and themes. Kung Fu Panda, at its best moments, hits that mark, when delving into Po’s relationship with Tigress, or Master Shifu, or his father. And yet, because it is by nature stuck in its own premise and medium (being animated, starring talking animals), it has to play lip service to its younger audience, with its wackier moments and moronic titular character. Kung Fu Panda struggles mightily in balancing this, which makes it hard really get into the franchise.

All of that is a roundabout way of saying that Kung Fu Panda always seems to come close to greatness, but in turn always comes short of that greatness, stumbling stupidly into a wall like the main character is prone to do. Remember the first film? Its most harrowing moments, besides its fantastic fight scenes, were watching Shifu’s growing frustration and confusion over Oogway’s decision to choose Po as the Dragon Warrior, and how those frustrations filtered through to the various members of the Furious Five. It’s most silliest moment? The final “fight” between Po and Tai Lung, which wasn’t so much a fight as it was some well-done game of grab-ass. The second film had a richer set of villains (between the Wolf Boss and Shen, who have history with Po’s family), and a heck of a lot of rich conversations between Po and Tigress, about their lives up until this point. The fight sequences here are a bit more extravagant and less personal, Shifu is set aside for a large portion of the film, and the plot itself falls flat at inopportune moments. I certainly do not hate these films, although I feel the first film has more going for it than the second, but the flaws are still there, holding back Kung Fu Panda from its full potential.

The TV show continues the films’ frustrating tonal dichotomy, where some episodes are childishly awful, and some, endearingly fantastic. “The Princess and the Po,” the second episode of the series, focuses on Po protecting an annoying, self-centered princess, which is as cliched and straight-forward as it sounds – of course they find common ground in its final five minutes. “Chain Reaction,” by contrast, is perhaps Legends of Awesomeness’s first sign of greatness. Primarily concerned with the type of relationship that exist between Po and Tigress, it touches upon Tigress’s complete frustration at Po’s sudden declaration of being a Dragon Warrior. Tigress is, in some ways, the most complex and complicated character in the show, and arguably one of the most complex and complicated female characters in modern times. Behind her stoicism is pain, anger, frustration, and sadness, doled out slowly over the course of the show. You could argue that someone like Tigress needs someone like Po – as the second film implied – since her stoicism holds her back from opening up as a person.

The hidden pathos that this franchise is built upon is the most powerful aspect of Kung Fu Panda, a pathos that is never directly stated (which is good and bad in its own ways): Shifu expected Tigress to be the Dragon Warrior, Tigress expected to be the Dragon Warrior, and they both have to deal with the fact they were wrong. It’s particularly painful when you know their history: “Father Crime” shows that Shifu was abandoned at the Jade Palace as a child by his own father, to be raised by Oogway; likewise, Tigress too was abandoned at the Jade Palace as according to “Kung Fu Day Care,” raised and trained by Shifu. Their ties to the Jade Palace is a long, painful, and tumultuous one; so for some fat, clumsy oaf to come in and achieve the Dragon Warrior status is a huge slap in the face. I mean, they have to train this guy, fight along side of him, and even protect him. It’s an antagonism that bubbles under the surface, and even though Po has his victories and manages to get on their good side, it’s still a sentiment that’s there.

So I’m not too surprised “Enter the Dragon” was nominated for the Emmy. It’s a fantastic one-hour TV movie, little on the “Po-is-goofy” gags and heavy on the earned sentiment, especially when Shifu tells Tigress, essentially his surrogate daughter, his plan to self-sacrifice himself. It’s heart-rendering stuff, which makes Po inevitable victory all the more rewarding; he may not be the ideal Dragon Warrior, but when it comes down to it, even he knows and understand the stakes. While most people’s mileage may vary, I think that “Enter the Dragon” works better than Kung Fu Panda 2 did.

Legends of Awesomeness powers through its episodes, bouncing between, well, awesomeness and shittiness. It has a handle on its villains and their relationships – Fung’s odd relationship with his Crocodile Bandits, Taotie’s relationship with his son Bien Zao, Master Junjie and his jealous antagonism towards Shifu – but not so much on its comic sensibilities or developing the cast outside of Po, Shifu, and Tigress. Monkey has a bit more going for him (we learn he has a brother) and Mantis has a complicated love life, but Crane and Viper are regularly ignored (mostly likely due to animation constraints) – and when they’re given their time in the spotlight, it seems unpolished and graceless. The one episode that we do learn about Viper, “Serpent’s Tooth,” represents everything that is both great and awful about the show, opening up the character but dropping the ball on its theme. “Serpent’s Tooth,” in fact, came dangerously close to representing what it’s like to be a distrusted minority in today’s America, wherein the citizens of the Valley of Peace express their dislike and distrust of snakes after a villainous snake named Fu-Xi attacks some people.

Viper, within her limited roles, has always been portrayed as nice, warm, helpful, and accommodating. The question, of course, is why? Because her kind is looked down upon. It’s thought of as icky, dirty, and dangerous, and even the positive-minded Po can’t help but accidentally express his own negative feelings towards snakes. This leads to the question: how long have snakes been treated like this, like second-class citizens? It looks like a while, but in pure, frustrating Kung Fu Panda fashion, it’s unclear. Still, it explains Viper’s behavior: stay quiet, keep your head down, train and work hard, be nice and detrimental towards everyone, lest people look at you as that “uppity snake.” So the story of another snake causing trouble nearby has everyone casting a cautious eye towards Viper, including the “nice friend” who supposedly was above it all. Watching the first ten minutes of this episode was painful; ask any minority that feeling of outsiderness, of feeling ostracized, of being stereotyped even though you spent your whole life trying to be the good guy, and every moment of anger at this entire situation is automatically looked upon with disdain and fear. You can’t even vent. Kung Fu Panda, once again, approaches greatness.

And once again, it fails it, turning Viper’s daring temptation into the scalie darkside by Fu-Xi’s taunts into an elaborate scheme cooked up by her and Shifu to only pretend to join him. The drama is utterly ruined, Viper is regulated to useful pawn, and while it’s nice to know that Viper’s friendship is genuine and that she is stronger than all the hate and anger spewed at her, it is utterly disappointing that the writers her dropped the ball on something so significant and powerful. Mainly due the fact that we don’t know Viper at all, we don’t really get an accurate look into how Viper feels about everything that happened. I really hope we see more of this in the future, but knowing Kung Fu Panda, we won’t.

Kung Fu Panda’s inability and/or unwillingness to commit to its most potentially dramatic ideas is baffling; it raises the question – why bother bringing aboard such ideas at all? Kung Fu Panda could certainly coast its way through a heavily pratfall-centric premise, filled with obvious silent scenes disguised as comic awkward pauses, masking the need to kill precious minutes. But it clearly loves its source, with its fascination of giddy, Jackie-Chan-esque fight scenes and its pointed need to open up its casts’ history and relationships – only to shut it down with a sudden “NAH!” This back-and-forth between juvenile absurdity and heavy pathos makes Kung Fu Panda a frustrating experience, surging between the highs and lows of what animated TV can offer.

We most likely will not see any more Kung Fu Panda entertainment until the third movie comes out, slated for 2015. Nick will probably continue more episodes then, interspersed with three more chapters to the Kung Fu Panda film franchise that will be released in the next ten years or so. With all these potential stories coming our way, I doubt Kung Fu Panda will really grasp the full potential of its franchise, continuing to be both the best AND worst franchise in modern entertainment. “Ska-doosh,” I guess.

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