Dreamworks Animation may usually lag behind its chief competitor Pixar in quality and often in tickets sold, but in terms of quantity and brand saturation, it's the champion. In addition to over-sequeling things like Shrek, it's also expanded into holiday specials in a big way in the last few years. There have been two Shrek specials, one for Christmas and another for Halloween, a Merry Madagascar, a Monsters vs. Aliens Halloween special, and now, the Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special.
Back when the Kung Fu Panda film was released, Tasha Robinson described the glut of CGI kids' films, led by Dreamworks Animation, by saying: “Over the last decade, the outpouring of Pixar-imitating CGI comedies about wacky mismatched animal pals has occasionally felt like the output of an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters, all banging out more or less the same thing” before calling Kung Fu Panda the Hamlet of the thought experiment. I tend to agree, though calling it Hamlet may be a little excessive. Still, it's a pretty entertaining romp. The key to Kung Fu Panda's excellent tolerability is Jack Black, whose shtick may be better when he's presented in animated form.
Kids' movies and holiday specials usually have the same basic structure, which makes the transition from one form to the next pretty straightforward. They start with the hero in a place of innocence, then something tempts him or her into leaving that innocence. They follow that path for a while but realize that the true meaning of what-have-you is back in their innocent state, and, redeemed, they set things right.
That form holds entirely true with the Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special. Jack Black's Po is still the Dragon Warrior, but he's also still working with his father in the noodle shop. The whole thing is reintroduced in yet another truly excellent cel-animated dream sequence at the start, tying this special to the film aesthetically. Po's father dreams that Po gets taken away by his Dragon Warrior duties, a fear that promptly occurs when Dustin Hoffman's Shifu arrives to tell Po that, as Dragon Warrior, he's the host of the “Winter Feast” at the Jade Palace, where all 29 Kung Fu masters gather every year.
Po gets excited, until he discovers that he can't bring his dad, with whom he spends every Winter Festival. His sadness and inherent Jack Black-ness lead to a comedy of errors in which everything starts to go wrong, until he uses kung fu to make everything better. Everything except his heart, of course, which is still with his father and the less classy/more fun Winter Feasts that he's used to. And so! Po the Kung Fu Panda leads a merry troupe of kung fu masters down to slum it at his dad's noodle house, and everyone is happy, the end.
Is it a Christmas classic, destined to echo through the ages like How the Grinch Stole Christmas? I don't really expect it. The generic “Winter Festival” makes sense given the setting, but it's so generic as to be almost totally meaningless. There's also virtually no drama, and no particular villain.
On the other hand, it's pretty damn funny at certain points. The funniest bits come from a new character, Wo Hop, voiced by Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock. You won't be surprised that Wo Hop is a rabbit, and you'll probably be even less surprised that Jack Black calls him “Bunny” through the course of the special (isn't that racist?). He plays a chef Po accidentally shames, leading to a brilliantly funny cel-animated bit showing just what the shame he's brought to his village entails. Wo Hop also figures that the only way he can relieve the shame is to die at the hands of the Dragon Warrior and tries an escalating series of suicide attempts.
Most of those attempts are shown during an exceptional montage sequence, showing Po's increasing inability to deal with the preparations for the holiday feast. This is traditional stuff, but it's shown with some surprisingly lively direction. The camera focuses on Po and builds the montage non-chronologically by whirling the scene around him. It's reminiscent of some of Wes Anderson's directorial playfulness, and its excellent direction is matched by its manic comedy. Po looks like he's just chopping some vegetables to boil, when Wo Hop suddenly jumps into the pot. A goose with a terrible voice auditions for lead solo.
Given the time and story constraints of a half-hour holiday special, seeing a surprising, superb sequence like that montage makes the Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special worth at least one viewing. It probably won't join Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the pantheon of specials, but on the off chance that it does, there are worse things for the future children of America to have to sit through every year.
- There's a happy lack of materialism in the special. It's about food, friends, and family, not about buying, selling, or making gifts.
- “You have some noodle in your neck fat.”
- Sadly not reprising his role from the film: Ian McShane. His voice would have been most welcome, but his character, understandably, doesn't really fit the holiday theme.
- “He has brought great shame on himself and his village for all eternity.”
- “Mmmm! Awful!”
- “This is not my 'A' ladle.”
- “Sometimes they love us too much. But it is not my place to say. It is my place to die.”
- “The Master's Creed is, like, the best creed ever.”
- “I'm sorry I made you feel guilty.” “Eh, don't be, that's what the holidays are for!”