There have been many animated films out there that just seemed very strange when they were announced. Animated films with plots that just seemed flat out ridiculous or even stupid and just seemed destined to fail, and yet against all odds they ended up not just being good, but amazing. I can think of several animated films that fall under that criterion like "The Lego Movie", but I don't think there has ever been an animated film that has been more surprising and amazing than "Kung Fu Panda". When it was first announced back in 2004, it seemed to garner a lot of people scratching their heads. A kung fu fighting panda played by Jack Black just seemed flat out ridiculous and the trailers that promoted the film didn't make it look any better. However, it ended up defying all expectations and ended up receiving critical acclaim, plenty of awards, and launched a big animated franchise. I remember seeing the film in theaters back in 2008 and rewatching it again, I can say it certainly still holds up. This is honestly one of my favorite animated films released by DreamWorks and is also my favorite film they released in the 2000s. I love this film a lot.
In the Valley of Peace in ancient China, a panda named Po (Jack Black) is a fan of kung fu and idolizes five masters of kung fu simply known as the Furious Five, consisting of Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Monkey (Jackie Chan). As much as he loves kung fu, he is currently stuck helping his adoptive goose father Mr. Ping (James Hong) run a noodle shop down in the village. One day though, the legendary kung fu master tortoise Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) announces he is to pick the Dragon Warrior and Po rushes to the Jade Palace to see which of the Furious Five is to be chosen. However, an incident with fireworks involves him getting into the palace where Oogway chooses Po as the Dragon Warrior, much to the shock of everyone, most notable Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Frustrated at Oogway's decision, Shifu decides to test Po to try to make him quit since he has no knowledge of kung fu yet the panda refuses to back down and wishes to be trained as the Dragon Warrior. Yet his training has to come at a quick pace as it's revealed that Shifu's former pupil Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has escaped from a massive security prison and is on his way back to the Valley of Peace. With time running out, Shifu must be able to train Po into the Dragon Warrior on time before Tai Lung returns to his former home.
I remember loving this film a lot over the years, but rewatching it again really made me appreciate just how fantastic the film was. I love the approach DreamWorks did with this story. When it was first conceived back in 2004, it was initially set to be a parody of the latest martial films that had been released at the time. Yet the directors John Stevenson and Mark Osbourne decided to do a different approach and make it a full-fledged martial arts comedy instead. This ended up being the best decision they could've made for the film as not only did it allow it to be funny and unique, it was also able to finally break DreamWorks out of the mold it was thrust into and finally become their own. Before this film came out, they were essentially known as the studio that had made "Shrek" and every previous computer-animated film they made was essentially a harmless animated comedy that frequently parodied a lot of films and shows. This film was able to show what the studio was capable of and made them a legitimate competition to Pixar with their emotional and deep storylines which they further proved two years later with "How to Train Your Dragon". This film delves a lot into Chinese mythology and there are so many backstories and legends to be explored which is what makes a perfect franchise starter. The emotions are genuine with the backstory of Tai Lung being handled beautifully and even Oogway's decent being the best scene of the film. I also found the comedy hilarious as it was all original and unique and didn't rely heavily on parodies like many previous DreamWorks films. As far as the animation goes, this is some of the best DreamWorks has ever put out. The directors stated that while making the film, they were aiming to make the most beautiful film the studio had ever put out and boy did they deliver which can be seen from the opening scene of the film animated in traditional animation by the legendary James Baxter. This is such jaw-dropping animation with the color palate being rich and eye-popping and Nico Marlet's character designs being very unique and original. He's one of my favorite animation character designers of all time and this film shows some of his best work. Though when it comes to the animation, the highlight is the action. This is some of the best action in an animated film ever. Every action scene is shot and choreographed excellently and the film takes advantage of the slow-motion and wide shots so the audience doesn't miss a thing. This is the standard for how animated action should be made. I also really loved the characters of this film and a lot of that has to come down to their voice actors. Every one of them is perfectly cast and perfectly plays off their traits. Po maybe a little naive at first, but he still is loveable and has a big heart. He's a perfect example of a student character and Shifu is also a great example of the teacher. Despite his stern attitude, he does have a sense of kindness and patience behind him and Hoffman's acting perfectly sells it. The Furious Five also are interesting and fun characters, Oogway is a great wise old master, and Tai Lung is a fantastic villain. He set the bar high for animated villains in this franchise and his tragic backstory and personality just made him enjoyable to watch. I just simply loved this film. Though if I had to criticize it, I will say the opening of the film is rushed. I feel like a little more time should've gone into the beginning to make the film perfect, but that's really about it.
In the end, "Kung Fu Panda" is a fantastic animated film with a story that's funny yet beautifully told, simply amazing animation and characters that are all likable with interesting backstories to be later explored. This is a fantastic start to an amazing franchise and watching this film again put a big smile on my face. It is my favorite animated film DreamWorks put out in the 2000s and that is saying a lot. There's no other way to say it. It's just simply awesome.