The origin of Kung Fu Panda
As expected, it manages to pull most of the ‘right’ levers. The Chinese references are mostly good, in a non-patronising way, although they do pull a Katzenberg (e.g. where all the characters are ‘in-character’ but the main character is Robin Williams) with the Panda, US accent and all. The actual animals are either Chinese, or from the Chinese culture, with some interesting choices (a mantis and viper as Kong-Fu fighters, a turtle as the ancient master). Also, no dumb pack animals are shown pulling crates or working, a usual miss in anthropomorphic works. The Red Panda Shifu (a Chinese word for martial arts master) is probably the best character in the whole film, artfully played by Dustin Hoffman.
The morals of the movie are also hit-and-miss, they do base on a lot of Zen/Chinese ideas, but it is the Big-Mac version. On one hand, the Panda remains an obese slob throughout the film (good), on the other, that is his “inner strength” (wot?). There’s a huge gap between saying “the power is within you” and showing you a mirror. The art is mostly good, although its Computer-Generated nature sometimes gets a bit overdone. I’m a fan of hand-drawn animation, so I’m biased, but I prefer my CGI “obvious” as in the Shrek, or Toy-Story way, rather than in a “drawn 2d” way. But I digress.
The whole reason for this review is that I kept wondering about where does the whole “Panda as a martial arts master” idea comes from? It’s obviously not original, DreamWorks are not known for inventing wheels. After all, we are talking about the studio that released “Antz” two weeks before “A Bug’s Life“, both starting production about the time Katzenberg left Disney (Pixar’s former publishers and current owners). But it’s more than just that. Pandas are not connected with martial arts the way other animals are. The film’s Furious Five (a tigress, a crane, a monkey, a mantis, and a viper), represent familiar Kung-Fu styles. The Panda, while is a Chinese animal, does not have any connection with Kung-Fu, or anything seemly resembling martial arts.
That is, if you stop looking at history and culture and start looking in pop-culture.
In April 1st, 1999, Blizzard, deep in the production of Warcraft III, “announced” that a new race was in the works for the game: Pandaren Empire.
The page included a fleshed history of the race to make it look an integral part of WarCraft’s world, complete with some units details, art and mockup screenshots.
Reaction was immediately favourable. The race, basically Panda Samurai, appealed to a lot of WarCraft fans and gamers in general (regardless of the Pandas being Chinese animal and the Samurai being Japanese), and managed to create a buzz around the concept, soon leading to some interesting results.
In the WarCraft III expansion pack, one of the playable characters was a Pandaren Brewmaster, sort of a Drunken Master warrior, but a panda. Here, once moving from the mock to the official, the character moved from the oriental mashup of panda samurai to a more Chinese oriented ideas.
Once this became “official” it just kept rolling. In World of Warcraft, there was an idea to capitalise on the Warcraft/Panda connection, with Pandaren Xpress, a delivery company for Chinese food. Later, a Panda cub was added as a pet.
With World of Warcraft being the no. 1 online RPG for several years now, its no wonder that Dreamworks Animation decided to roll their own version with a Kung-Fu Panda. With the last Warcraft-panda hulabaloo taking place circa 2005, it should coincide with the film’s production start, and nail this conspiracy on the head.