The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- Kung-Fu Panda/How to Train Your Dragon

Kung Fu Panda-HTTY Dragon

The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing.  This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.

Dreamworks Animation.  Where do I start with these guys?  Well, let’s start by saying that in my book they’ve long had the duel indignity of being the makers of family films and of appearing to be soulless hacks who were shameless in their pandering to the basest of audience desires.  They seemed like the Brett Ratners and McGs of family cinema when compared to the “true artists” at Pixar.  The whole internet knew it and there were ample memes to reinforce the notion, my favorite being an image that summed up Dreamworks’ creative approach as “Uhh, there are talking animals… and they all make this [grinning] face.”  They also had the gall to be staggeringly successful at the box office.  The Shrek franchise was pretty much a license to print money in and of itself, and by 2008 they’d also established their even less respectable Madagascar franchise.  Even their forgotten “failures” like Shark Tale, Over the Hedge, and Bee Movie had managed to make hundreds of millions of dollars at the worldwide box office, often tripling or even quadrupling their production budgets.  Worst of all, they managed to influence a whole cadre of other hacky animation studios to imitate their lazy and uninspired style in the creation of similarly brain numbing family fare like Ice Age and Hotel Transylvania.

I don’t know if it was Stockholm Syndrome or what, but there was a three year period between 2008 and 2010 Dreamworks actually managed to score some points with the critics with the release of a couple of movies that actually seemed to be pretty good.  Not Pixar-good, but good.  Mind you the studio would immediately shoot that goodwill in the head by putting out nothing but sequels and forgettable crap like Turbo in the years that followed, but hey, two semi-respectable movies are better than none, right?  That’s not to say I went to see them.  Hell, in 2008 and 2010 I wasn’t even seeing Pixar movies, I sure as hell wasn’t going to be seeing slightly over-achieving Dreamworks Animation movies.  Still, I have from time to time wondered if they hype about these projects did have any legitimacy.  So, today I’m going to give Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon in order to see if there really is something deep down in the soulless abyss that is Dreamworks Animation that can be appreciated.

Kung-Fu Panda

Never in a million years did I think I’d ever find myself in a position where I’d be both watching and writing about a movie called Kung Fu Panda, at least not one where the title was literal.  This really is a movie about a panda, who does Kung Fu.  It’s not just the combination of those two things that I find suspect, the panda in and of itself is suspicious.  Every few years we see crazes where people fall in love with certain “cute” animals.  It was penguins in ’05 and ’06 and pandas seem to have stepped in to take their place in the wake of that stupid viral video of a sneezing panda cub that was circulating around the time this film came out.  As someone who hates pandas, this was not a pleasant turn of events. That’s one demerit against the film, and another is that it stars Jack Black.  Now, I don’t hate Jack Black, in fact I’ve found him amusing on a number of occasions.  However, voicing a CGI panda who knows Kung Fu seems like exactly the kind of project which would lead him to indulge in all of his worst tendencies.

Still, critics seemed to take a shine to the film.  It’s sitting at 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and it beat Wall-E in a surprise upset at the Annie Awards, although the prevailing theory is that it only won that because of professional jealousy within the animation community.  In fact it’s kind of interesting that this and Wall-E came out in the same year and had kind of an odd relationship.  It was sort of the Iron Man to Wall-E’s The Dark Knight; one was clearly the better and more respectable work but the other was seen as surprisingly well made and populist alternative.  Of course if I wasn’t going to see Wall-E that year I damn sure wasn’t going to see this thing, at least not until now.

Unlike most of the family films I’ve seen over the course of this project, Kung-Fu Panda exists in a world that consists entirely of talking Animals.  Pixar’s talking animal films like Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, and to some extent A Bug’s Life all took place in worlds that were still very much populated by humans and where the talking animals essentially lived in secret.  Here in Kung-Fu Panda there are no humans and anthropomorphized animals have built societies and live as surrogate humans.  More specifically they live as surrogate ancient Chinese people and their world bears a strong resemblance to the ancient China seen in the various Shaw Brothers films of the 1970s.

In many ways this is exactly the movie I was afraid it would be.  Over the top slapstick and bad comedy rule the day in the film and Jack Black is pretty much what I thought he’d be in the lead role.  The rest of the voice cast is pretty cool, but most of the big name actors they got are sort of wasted.  I think Jackie Chan, for instance, has something like two lines in the film.  It also trades in the cheesy and simplistic moralization of the “you can be anything you want” variety that Dreamworks Animation’s movies usually seem to come with.  In this case the message comes when Jack Black’s character nonsensically seems to learn kung fu over the course of a training montage  and then gets a self-esteem boost when he learns from a couple of sources that there’s no “secret ingredient” to success… or something.  Whatever.  Look, I’m not the type of person who gets bent out of shape when kids are handed participation medals and the like, but this ending that more or less eliminates both hard work and talent from the secret to success kind of comes off as ridiculous wish fulfillment.  A similar story of a seemingly disadvantaged animal succeeding in a field that normally would have been closed to him was told much better in Pixar’s Ratatouille, in which a rat manages to become a master chef but only because he has real aptitude for the trade and also works like mad over the entire course of the film in order to make it.

All that said, there were moments when I could see why this film appealed to people more than the average Dreamworks film.  For one thing, the action scenes here are actually pretty solid.  The makers of the film seem to have choreographed the fight scenes pretty carefully and I was especially amused by a scene where the Panda and his mentor “fight” over a piece of food during a training exercise.  That’s not to say that I’d want to see any of these scenes over an actual live action martial arts film, firstly because the fights don’t have a real sense of danger to them and secondly because it’s a lot more thrilling to see real live people doing these physical feats, but the fights are certainly better than they had to be.  Also, the people who made the film do seem to have a genuine affection for the martial arts genre, and coming from the studio that became famous by incorporating a Matrix spoofing bullet time sequence into a movie about a farting ogre, that’s a relatively cool thing to be referencing.

At the end of the day, this is not a movie I need.  I have plenty of real martial arts movies to watch which aren’t filled with dumb jokes and stupid moralizing.  However, I can see why kids who maybe haven’t been exposed to stuff like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin might like it in much the same way that the kids who weren’t allowed to listen to N.W.A might have liked MC Hammer.  That doesn’t mean it’s a good movie and I’m not going to give it the pass that critics in 2008 gave it, but I guess I can see how a critical community that had been forced to sit through three Shrek movies, Shark Tale, Over the Hedge, and Bee Movie might have been in a position to over-rate it.

How to Train Your Dragon

If the critical success of Kung-Fu Panda was unexpected, the even greater success of another Dreamworks film two years later was downright shocking.  That film, How to Train Your Dragon, looked like pretty standard family movie crap when it was first announced and advertised.  It had a terrible title, a concept that didn’t really stand out, and a trailer with “hilarious” gag involving a dragon vomiting a fish part onto a dude and making him eat it raw.  And yet, when the film finally opened it earned a Pixar-like 98% rating on Rottentomatoes, it won the Annie Award, and almost certainly would have won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature if it hadn’t come out the same year as Toy Story 3.  On top of all that, it became the highest grossing Dreamworks film outside of the Shrek series.  I wasn’t dreading the prospect of seeing How to Train Your Dragon the way I was dreading Kung Fu Panda, but when Kung-Fu Panda failed to live up to its hype I became all the more skeptical of all the praise that How to Train Your Dragon got back in 2010.

The first thing I noticed when I looked at the film’s pedigree before watching it was that its voice cast was surprisingly dignified, at least by Dreamworks standards.  This is a studio that regularly thrives on the gratuitous casting of celebrities who seem to have only been brought in for the purpose of putting their names on the poster.  The lead voice actor is Jay Baruchel, an actor who’s perfectly suited for the part of a vaguely nerdy but not cartoonishly pathetic young man, but who had very little name recognition in 2010.  In fact, How to Train Your Dragon is the only Dreamworks film to date which doesn’t have an A-List celebrity voicing its lead role.  Most of the rest of the voice actors here do have semi-recognizable names but aside from Gerard Butler and Jonah Hill none of them are really movie stars.  For the most part they’re people like Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and David Tennant; recognizable talents that seem to have actually been hired because they matched certain roles rather than as a means to get famous people to promote the film on their talk show rounds.

When I finally popped the Blu-Ray in and started the movie what struck me was how much Dreamworks had upped their animation quality in the two years since the release of Kung-Fu Panda.  I was actually kind of shocked at how dated and sort of cheap Kung Fu Panda had looked, especially when compared to 2008’s other animated hit Wall-E, but How to Train Your Dragon’s animation did seem to be on par with Pixar for the most part.  The film’s look is certainly stylized, but stylized well.  The characters all look cool, and I was especially struck but the visual design of the character of Astrid, who is one of the most believable “warrior princesses” I’ve seen.  I also really liked the look of both the film’s signature dragon (Toothless) and the big “boss” dragon at the end, and was especially amazed at how realistic their bulging eyeballs looked.  My one complaint about the film’s visual style is that, aside from the two aforementioned examples, all of the film’s other dragons look distractingly silly.  It’s almost like the filmmakers put all their art resources into those two dragons and then left the rest of them to be finished by the B-team because they seem like they came straight out of a different movie.

The film’s story is, oddly enough, a sort of platonic inter-species take on “Romeo and Juliet.”  As it often seems to be the case in Dreamworks’ dilms, the film is about a young misfit who’s trying to find his place in a society that demands that he take a specific role he is unsuited for.  In this case that’s the role of a soldier in an age old war between Vikings and dragons.  Like the Montagues and Capulets these two sides have been fighting so long that they haven’t even considered peaceful co-existence as an option.  What finally breaks the cycle is a forbidden… friendship… between two young members of each clan.  This “friendship” is kept secret and only once it looks like the two “friends” have been killed do the warring parties see what a scourge is laid upon by their hate.  I guess it’s not a perfect parallel, after all the feud is made rather one-sided by the fact that only one of the clans is made up of sentient humans, at its heart this is a classic forbidden… friendship… story.

The film isn’t overburdened with action set pieces, but when battles do occur the filmmakers do a fairly good job of maintaining a legitimate sense of danger while still keeping the onscreen violence toned down and PG.  The bigger bulk of the film’s “action” comes from its flying sequences, which are appropriately sweeping, especially when accompanied by John Powell’s excellent score.  In fact it was that first flying scene when I finally broke down and admitted that this is a pretty damn good movie.  Are there some dumb jokes in it?  Yeah, there are, but they aren’t as omnipresent as they were in Kung-Fu Panda.  In fact there probably isn’t that much more dumb comedy here than there is in your average Pixar movie.  And speaking of Pixar, I do think this probably is good enough to stand up to some of that more acclaimed animation studio’s works including their medieval romp: Brave.  That’s not to say that How to Train Your Dragon is a great movie or anything.  It’s not an overly deep work and it doesn’t really take all that many risks, but it is a solidly put together family film that manages to preserve more of its dignity than this studio’s fare usually does.

In Conclusion

So, in the battle of Panda vs. Dragon, I think I’m pretty firmly entrenched in Team Dragon.  It isn’t even close really.  Kung-Fu Panda is basically just another shitty Dreamworks movie with a couple redeeming elements that make it a little more palatable, whereas How to Train Your Dragon is a genuinely good film with a few shitty Dreamworks elements holding it back.  I’ll give them credit for having finally made one movie that’s worth a damn, but at the same time that actually kind of makes them look worse.  If they were really capable of making a film which is that good this whole time, what’s their excuse for how lame the rest of their filmography is?  Maybe if How to Train Your Dragon had been the start of some new and more respectable phase of Dreamworks releases I would be more able to forgive them, but they’ve put out eight movies since then and every last one of them have had the whiff of being business as usual from the hacks at Dreamworks.  So yeah, I’m glad I saw How to Train Your Dragon, but nothing about this experience has changed my mind about this studio.  Next Month I’ll finish up my analysis of the Harry Potter series by looking at both parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.

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