Human-like animals in films: Highlighting or masking culture?
What fifteen years of Kung Fu Panda awesomeness has taught us
As of the coming 6th June Kung Fu Panda will be fifteen years old, a big milestone for any film. Since its initial release in 2008, two other films have been released in the Kung Fu trilogy (Kung Fu Panda 2 and Kung Fu Panda 3) and a handful of shorts and television episodes. There is even a planned fourth film for early 2024, so it is safe to say that the franchise as a whole has seen major success.
But the characters within it, they’re…animals and yet they talk and act like humans…with American voices too. Maybe all this cultural talk and history should be left to the humans? Or maybe films like Kung Fu Panda are the perfect way of presenting these cultures to a wider and varied audience? Let’s find out.
What a trend
Why are we seeing this trend of animals with human-like traits in cinema? Well the technical term for this trait is anthropomorphism and it’s been a trend in other forms of media for a while. It’s been seen in print, in even classics such as Charlotte’s Web, counting the titular character Wilbur’s exhibition of human speech as wholly within anthropomorphism. In terms of cinema, the classic Disney short film from 1928, Steamboat Willie is a prime example of an animal with human-like characteristics and an early version of the famous Mickey Mouse character that has become the face of Disney. This trend has continued into the modern day with more recent films such as the 2022 film The Bad Guys, placing Kung Fu Panda as no anomaly. But why has it succeeded?
The panda that could
The main character of Kung Fu Panda, Po has been a major success as a protagonist in marketability and likeability. Within his own story he has defeated countless foes using kung fu, despite his own self doubt and the discouragement directed towards him from others. He has experienced human emotions and moments of defeat despite being an animal, he is relatable and continues onwards to success despite his initial failures. As teacher of film studies at St Laurence School Aidan Blowers states in regards to Po’s journey, that he acquires
‘strong characteristics that obviously he discovers on the way.’
This is a positive story of success. As produced by American production company Dreamworks, this plot and story could’ve taken place with characters and animals rooted in American culture, but instead China was chosen as the main setting for the film, where even Po being a panda holds some significance. China has seen the panda as a sort of warrior due to their abilities to survive harsh winters, find food and climb tall trees, even in modern examples the panda has featured as the Beijing 2022 winter olympics’ mascot.
With a film so rooted in Chinese culture, made by an American production company and headlined by cute and cartoon-ish animals, how right or wrong does Kung Fu Panda get it? Well with the characters being animated animals, the voices aren’t attached to the appearances and so there can be a divide in what the voice actors are representing culturally and who they actually are. For example, the Hollywood famous Jack Black voices Po. He is an American actor playing a significant symbol within Chinese culture that engages fully in their history within the film. Not only this, but he is of course the driving force of the narrative and the main protagonist.
In terms of a Hollywood film it of course makes sense to cast a famous American actor who was on the up and up in order to heighten sales and the star power of Kung Fu Panda. As Blowers continued to state
‘15 years ago, Jack Black was a big a big-ish deal. He was probably in his kind of pomp.’
He then led onto the star power that this lends to the film, arguing that
‘You need to have that strong Hollywood kind of character that you want to carry the film, particularly when it's a comedic film in large part.’
Perhaps lending the role of the panda to an American actor was indeed a necessity for the popularity of the film and the rest of the franchise.
For more on what Aidan Blowers had to say, see here:
This was however instead of a completely Chinese or generally East Asian cast and protagonist due to the flexibility of using anthropomorphic characters. Let’s see where Kung Fu Panda was able to match the voice actors with the cultural significance of the setting and characters. Jackie Chan starring in the film was a move that ties into the theme of kung fu well, he plays the Furious Five member, Monkey, named after his species of animal and the style of kung fu. Much like Jackie Chan’s own history of making and starring in films such as 1978’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow which centres around kung fu and its many forms. Jackie Chan playing a literal monkey in Kung Fu Panda, a film about China and kung fu, is a prime example of animals with human-like characteristics highlighting cultures and enhancing them.
A character like Monkey is the ultimate expression and literal representation of a culture, combining the animal with the voice actor. Not only this but other characters have had their voice actors matched with their culture, such as Po’s adoptive father Mr Ping, who is played by James Hong an American born to Chinese immigrant parents and star in the most recent Oscars success story Everything Everywhere All at Once. Kung Fu Panda then starts to show its authentic side despite its highly American production, linking the anthropomorphic characters with their voice actors and Chinese significance. Even Po himself is a representation of Yin and Yang as pointed out by Sheffield Film Unit treasurer Nathan Raj
‘You see Po struggling with being a nobody in the first film and the Dragon Warrior. In the second, being in the present but also balancing his past. Then in the 3rd being a part of two different families. Panda and duck’
Never forget about the audience
All is well and good when exploring the balance between masking and highlighting culture, but what about the aspect that truly matters? The reaction of the audiences to these human-like animals. Specifically for Chinese audiences in under two weeks the film gained $12 million in Chinese cinemas, an extremely strong opening in China within the most recent years surrounding it. It’s safe to say that it was a large success within the country, with translations into Mandarin even within America showing a desire by Chinese speaking audiences.
It is safe to say that even fifteen years later Kung Fu Panda is a film that succeeds in representing human cultures, emotions and turmoil with animal characters. Using the animal characters as representations of kung fu styles that hold significance within Chinese culture whilst containing a balance of American and Chinese actors. It doesn’t mask, but it highlights culture and will continue to do so with the fourth film on its way.