So is the KUNG FU PANDA TV series worthwhile?
Recently I mentioned discovering that Nickelodeon was doing a TV series called Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, spinning off from the Dreamworks movies. It formally premiered about a week ago and has been airing daily, so I’ve now got a small but somewhat representative sample of episodes. So is it anywhere near as good as the movies it’s based on?
Well, yes and no. It’s often a pretty funny show. The substitute voice actors are generally fairly good at approximating the movie actors’ voices (and Lucy Liu and James Hong reprise their movie roles). It’s reasonably entertaining, most of the time.
But it sometimes doesn’t feel completely authentic to the films’ universe. It occasionally does something the KFP films have made a point of avoiding — inserting modern anachronisms into the medieval-China setting. For instance, a recent episode had Monkey using a “joy luck buzzer” to electrocute an unwitting Po. How? Where did the electricity come from? Especially given that the thing was made of wood? In a series built around that kind of anachronism, that would be okay, but it’s inconsistent with the world the movies built.
Also, Po doesn’t seem to have matured as much as he had at the end of the first film. They’ve stuck him in the role of perpetual screw-up. Then again, it seems to be set between the two films, so maybe one could interpret it as showing his learning curve toward the more capable, confident figure he is at the start of the second film. Except I don’t see a curve so far, just a series of episodes that always start off with basically the same status quo.
One stylistic thing bugs me a little, but it’s very nitpicky. The show makes a point of emulating the first film’s use of stylized 2D animation for certain sequences, but it uses it rather broadly, for flashbacks, daydreams, narrated stories both true and false, just about everything that isn’t present-day reality. But between the two movies, it’s pretty clear that the 2D animation is meant specifically to represent Po’s dreams. In the second film, the introductory flashback is depicted through shadow puppets instead, and (spoiler) when Po’s dreams of his childhood blossom into full memory, the 2D animation gives way to 3D. (That is, the flat drawings give way to solid-looking computer models. A different kind of 2D/3D than the kind that involves wearing glasses to see things pop out of the screen at you.) So while the movies use different animation styles to represent different specific things, the show uses the 2D animation style for everything. So it’s not quite the same. It’s an imitation that isn’t on the same level as the films’ innovative stylistic experiments.
Most of all, what bugs me about the show is that its characters are supposed to be heroes defending the Valley of Peace, but we almost never see them on missions. Most of the episodes so far have started off with the characters doing something very routine and then having something bad happen to them because of some stupid thing Po does or some problem or villain they unwittingly stumble across. We rarely see them actually helping or protecting people, except from problems that they had a hand in creating.
And maybe that’s partly a problem of the limited animation budget. 3D computer animation is expensive, and every new character or setting or prop has to be separately modeled, so a show done in this style is limited in the number of those things that it can include (which is one of the reasons I question the decision to do the new Green Lantern animated series, which debuts tonight, in 3D CGI). I’m already getting tired of the bamboo-forest setting that’s practically the only outdoors location we ever see in KFP:LoA. And if they can only use so many character models, maybe that limits their ability to show the heroes defending others instead of just themselves. (Except the show seems to be using the same computer models from the movies; surely they have countless digital character, prop, and scenery models that they could recycle from the films.)
So to sum up: a reasonably funny and watchable show, but it falls short of the movies on several levels and doesn’t feel completely authentic to their world. But maybe that’s just because the movies set such a high bar.