The APAHM Project Day 2: Kung Fu Panda 2
Updated: May 3, 2020
Film: Kung Fu Panda 2
Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Where to watch it: Netflix
Why it made the list:
Three Words: It. Made. History.
I realize that sounds dramatic, how could an animated film about a food-loving Panda fighting Kung Fu, that’s a sequel no less, be that important? I’ll be the first to admit that the “Kung Fu Panda” series is not memorable to me. They don’t stand out the way “Shrek” does and it’s not a go-to DreamWorks film I pop in my DVD player very often like “The Rise of the Guardians.” I’ve actually never even seen the third installation. They’re entertaining, sure, but they were just kind of there. So how did “KFP2” make history? The reason is simple. They had Jennifer Yuh Nelson.
Nelson, a Korean-American filmmaker, started her filmmaking journey through animation as a storyboard artist. Having worked on a few DreamWorks movies in the past, she then directed the dream sequence of “Kung Fu Panda”, which earned her an Annie Award, the first woman to do so for the category of Best Directing in a Feature Production. This led to her directing “Kung Fu Panda 2”. Why is this revolutionary? Because she became the first ever solo-female director of a studio animated feature film. Not only that, but because of her excellent work on “Kung Fu Panda 2” (which we will get into, because now I feel bad I slept on this one for so long), she became the first female director nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. She also held the title of highest-grossing solo female director, raking in $665 million USD. She was later surpassed by Patty Jenkins for “Wonder Woman” in 2017.
If this is your first time hearing about Nelson and think she’s super cool like I do, I highly recommend checking out her video interviews, as her process is quite interesting. I had the privilege of meeting Nelson back in 2018 at San Diego Comic-Con, where she congratulated me on my short film and gave me some advice on how to be a confident director. I expressed how inspirational she was to me, and she thanked me, saying that if somehow her just existing as a female, Asian director inspired me, then she was thankful (we actually highlight several other Asian female directors this month, so be sure to check back to read about them).
My sister, Nelson, and I at San Diego Comic-Con
Now let’s talk about this movie. I always say that animated movies are a box office success. Why? Because kids want to go see them and they usually need an adult to go see it with. But I think “KFP2” had a few advantages. One, is the fact that it was a sequel. People loved the first one, myself included, so of course you already have a fan base established. Two, it features an all-star cast of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and Angelina Jolie. But it also features many prominent Asian-American actors such as Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, James Hong, Michelle Yeoh, and even a small part from Lauren Tom. Three, this film focuses on many themes that I think are important for children and adults alike to learn.
Let’s begin with the theme of inner peace and time. Po visits Master Shifu, who is practicing his inner peace and advises Po that the key to saving Kung Fu and defeating Lord Shen, the antagonistic peacock (voiced by the talented Gary Oldman, who delivers a chilling performance), is to find inner peace. Later, we meet a soothsayer ram (Yeoh) who tells Shen that the most important time is now. I think this theme is extremely important, especially for those who may sometimes feel anxious, like myself. For Po to find inner peace, he has to let go of the past (his dreams and visions). For Shen to try to emerge victorious, he needs to stop worrying about the future (and also let go of his past, more on this later). Anxiety is defined as feeling stress or fear for what is to come, the anticipation for it. The only thing we are able to control is what is happening in this moment. We can prepare for the future and we can learn from the past, but quite often we cannot change them.
Additionally, patience is another theme. Shifu notes that inner peace is something others have spent 50 years perfecting. Later, Po is training with Tigress, who says she spent 20 years punching iron trees to gain strength. Po then asks if there was a shorter alternative. Mastering a craft or a skill takes time, dedication, and patience (practice makes perfect and all that). I have been doing at home pilates and the instructor (Asian-American, Cassey Ho) often says that flexibility takes time and practice, don’t worry about where you are today. You’re doing better than you did yesterday and tomorrow you’ll be better than you were today. I think we can often get discouraged thinking about perfecting a skill right away, we live in such an instantaneous world, we get impatient. We also compare ourselves to others, but if we continue on our own paths and focus on how we can better ourselves today, maybe one day we too can become Dragon Masters.
The theme of parents and family also plays a key role. The film begins with Shen and his plans to take over China using fireworks as weapons. His parents were rightfully concerned about his need for power and recruited the soothsayer to predict Shen’s future. She said Shen‘s downfall would be a hero in black and white. To prevent the prophecy from ever coming true, Shen pulls a King Herod, and maliciously invades a panda village, wiping them out. Proud of his accomplishments, Shen boasts to his parents about what he has done, thinking they would praise him. However, they were appalled and sent him away, heartbroken.
We jump to Po’s backstory when he discovers he was adopted by his goose father, Mr. Ping. Mr. Ping found Po as a cub and raised him as his own. The love Ping has for his son is plain as day, his noodle shop now boasts posters of his son, dishes are named after him, and photos of him and Po are in the kitchen. In Asian culture, a common way of expressing love is through food and feeding, which we see Ping did and does for Po, always asking him if he can cook him something and if he’s hungry. Even as Po is about to depart to save China, Ping packs him a bag full of food and his favorite things. As Po leaves, we see the pain on Ping’s face as he watches his son go. We feel the same pain he does as Ping now struggles with if he will ever see his son again and if he and his son’s relationship will stay intact now that the secret is out about his adoption.
Throughout the film, Po has several flashbacks of his biological parents and it is later revealed that his mother abandoned him in order to draw Shen and his wolves away from him, giving Po a chance to survive. Now knowing what Shen did, Po attacks Shen by finding his inner peace. Shen is confused as to how Po has found inner peace given his tragic backstory. When Po explains his reasoning, Shen is unable to not see comparisons between himself and Po. How was Po able to let go and not Shen? Both Shen and Po lost their parents, and both of their parents loved them enough to sacrifice separating themselves from their children. However the difference is Shen had no one, but Po had his father, Ping. Po was unaware of his tragedy (ignorance is bliss) and Shen felt rejected and failed to see his parent’s love for him, which the soothsayer reminds him of. Po found love in his parents, his adopted father, and the Furious Five, whom he later professes his love to, showing that family is not always through blood. Let’s not leave out the sweet ending of the film when Po tells Ping he is his son.
Lastly, the animation in this film is beautiful. I should probably preface that I absolutely love animation, and had once considered a career in animation (sometimes I still do), and so this next bit might get a little nerdy. Disney gets a lot of the credit for breathtaking animation, not that they don’t deserve it, but DreamWorks has some stunning art as well (see “How to Train Your Dragon” and “The Rise of the Guardians”, *swoon*). Once you know Nelson has a background in animation and drawing, I think you can really notice the details and thought process that went through each scene (Nelson also storyboards her films as a way to direct). I especially love the 2-D animation sequences (a dying art in my opinion) and the use of transitions in both the montage to Gongmen City and Po finding his inner peace at the panda village. They are so clever and dynamic and something that could only truly be achieved by animation. The colors, light, and texture in the film are also worth noting, making the CGI film feel more artistic and stylistic. I also love the character design, how the animals’ proportions all seem a little off, perfect for an animated film and making it feel more like the cartoons we grew up watching. Let’s not forget to mention the designs of Lord Shen, as peacocks are usually a symbol of beauty and luck, they were able to make Shen cool and intimidating, all of which is achieved through character design.
Does It Deserve To Stay On The List?
The “Kung Fu Panda” movies are on a short list of Asian-centric animated films, something that impacts young children looking for representation. Even small details like the soothsayer looking at Po’s tongue to check his health help contribute to accurate representation that we seem to be lacking in American films. This, along with the success and accolades of Jennifer Yuh Nelson, an A-list cast, stunning visuals, and important lessons that branch outside of the basics like the Golden Rule, help make the “Kung Fu Panda” series worth remembering in the DreamWorks world. I guess now I have to go and finish watching the third one!