'Kung Fu Panda' and the DreamWorks Renaissance

The studio's sixteenth film was the beginning of a new era of animation.

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The studio’s sixteenth film was the beginning of a new era of animation.

In 2008, Dreamworks Animation was in a bit of a slump. While its two 2007 films, Shrek the Third and Bee Movie, were box office successes, neither did well critically. In general, Dreamworks Animation was regarded as store-brand kids’ movie company, playing second fiddle to Pixar. While animated films were generally a box-office draw for families during this time, creatively nothing about Dreamworks’ films really stood out. But Kung Fu Panda, released 10 years ago this week, marked a turning point at which Dreamworks films began to be considered higher quality.

So, like, what happened?

Obviously, the huge spike in animation quality from previous films deserves some credit. The choice to use anthropomorphic cartoon animals was a good one; it saved the studio the agony of the PlayStation 2-like humans that so plagued Bee Movie. The choice to take a fantasy approach to the story was a good one as well, giving the lighting a little more leeway in terms of audience acceptability. Beyond this, sequences like the Tai Lung escape showcase just how much more work was put into the technical parts of this film. The stunning environment design also serves as a preview of what would earn Dreamworks praise for its visual work later down the line, with films like How To Train Your Dragon.

But more than anything else, Kung Fu Panda’s relative self-seriousness is what saved it from the Dreamworks B-movie pile (pun entirely intended).

Unlike previous Dreamworks Animation films, Kung Fu Panda is more of a “film with comedy,” rather than a comedic film. Movies like Madagascar and Shrek, which both managed to establish franchise presence, focused distinctly on making an animated movie that was funny. Pop culture references abound, and there is a frankly embarrassing amount of flatulence-based humor that plagues these films.

Meanwhile, Kung Fu Panda takes its own plot of a giant panda that learns kung fu as sincerely as possible. While the movie is not devoid of humor-oriented towards children (mostly courtesy of Jack Black, surprisingly excellent in the film), it doesn’t override its own plot with jokes and is actually quite tense at times. Rewatching it in preparation for this article, I found myself on the edge of my seat during the duel between Shifu and Tai Lung, which, incidentally, is another masterfully animated sequence.

Furthermore, and I’m trying to put this as politely as possible, the movie isn’t dumb. Yes, Kung Fu Panda is an animated film clearly targeted at a youth demographic, but never does the writing compromise because “maybe it’s too hard to understand for kids.” The filmmakers clearly understand that kids aren’t dumb going into this venture. Just because it’s “for kids” doesn’t mean that a film can’t be engaging or deal with serious topics. Kung Fu Panda broaches themes of what it means to be a parent, hard work, and being special in your own way, which are all things that kids can relate to, and it does all of these in a fun action-comedy with animated animal characters.

Much like the work of Don Bluth, Kung Fu Panda is a movie for kids that doesn’t patronize kids or treat them like they’re not smart enough to know what’s going on. This is exactly what Pixar has been doing since the beginning. Movies like Wall-E and Toy Story don’t assume that kids are too thick to empathize with characters, and need to be carried along with fart jokes and pop culture references that they may or may not understand. When Shrek came out, I was 6. I didn’t even know what The Matrix was. Was it really effective to include that bullet time shot, Dreamworks? Pixar never put comedy before telling an engaging and interesting story, and Kung Fu Panda was the first Dreamworks film to recognize and emulate this quality.

After Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks landed a series of solid hits that performed respectably at both the box office and the critics’ table. As of late, they have begun to milk franchises again, but I don’t think I can judge them for that. Still, I think it’s important to look back on what made this movie, Kung Fu Panda, the catalyst for this major change, and to understand why that’s important.

There’s a stigma associated with things that are “for kids,” and that’s problematic from more than one angle. We treat things that are “for kids” like they’re not worth our time, and that judgment is a double-edged sword because kids’ entertainment is also treated like it’s not worth our time from a production angle. But is it really so wrong to try and teach our kids empathy and a passion for quality storytelling and filmmaking from an early age? You know, as opposed to parking them in front of a screen so they can cackle at another five-dozen fart jokes.

All I do all day is think about cartoons.