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I want to tell you a story.
It’s the story of an awkward and nerdy, but fundamentally kind-hearted, man. Living alone with his dad, this young man is going nowhere in life — until the fate of the entire country is unexpectedly thrust upon his shoulders. While many doubt and belittle him, our hero grits his teeth and gets to work. After an emotional journey through challenging personal obstacles and difficult interpersonal relationships, he ultimately ends up learning to be more confident in himself than ever before. Over time, we also see him discover that he is adopted, and work to build a healthy relationship with his birth father. We watch him grow closer to his peers, sharing a particularly close yet refreshingly platonic relationship with a female coworker, and winning the affection of his stoic mentor.
Now I’m going to tell you something else. The hero of our story is an anthropomorphic panda. His adoptive father is a goose, and his best friend is a tiger.
Many readers will probably recognize what I’m talking about. Perhaps fans could sense it from the beginning.
I’m talking, of course, about the cinematic force that is the “Kung Fu Panda” trilogy. Using this film, I want to make a case for the unapologetic and sincere enjoyment of children’s films.
By no means am I claiming that all kids’ movies are artistic or complex; certainly, that’s not the case with the “Despicable Me” or the “Trolls” franchises (although even they have delivered their fair share of fun and enjoyment to the TikTok generation). I’m also not advocating that viewing children’s films should replace our consumption of other content. What I am asserting, however, is that movies marketed for kids and families can actually be some of the most well-crafted, thoughtful, and life-changing works of art out there. And they deserve our genuine attention.
When it comes down to it, the beauty of the children’s movie form is that it has to capture and communicate big, complex ideas in easily digestible ways. Admittedly, this is sometimes done by dumbing things down, or by avoiding heavy subjects altogether. But occasionally, kids’ films will strike gold. They will deliver nuanced and touching portraits of life, love, and loss — in simplistic yet deeply symbolic ways.
In other words, what is mundane or understated in a kids’ film out of necessity could actually manifest as just the right level of holding back — what people in the artistic world like to call “subtext.”
As an example, I’ll return to the value of the children’s franchise I opened with: “Kung Fu Panda.” I’m not going to argue that it provides the most refined portrait of body positivity out there (unfortunately, plenty of casual fat jokes are made without hesitation), but it can’t be denied that the films consistently deliver upbeat — and sometimes astonishingly philosophical — messages about self-love and confidence. Amazingly, there’s never a superficial makeover scene or weight-loss montage; instead, the protagonist’s arc is about learning to trust himself, and earning the respect of his peers. The animated fight scenes feature homages to real kung fu techniques, and to top it all off, the films are scored by the prolific Hans Zimmer and John Powell. The visuals are vivid and captivating, the messages are solid, and the musical experience is almost like no other. In fact, the famous piece “Oogway Ascends” is known to be one of the most emotional film soundtracks out there — if you don’t believe me, one clip of it has over 20 million views on Youtube.
Pandas and film scores aside, there’s something crucial that happens when you sit down and earnestly, shamelessly enjoy a good children’s movie. Yes, you’ll probably have a great time, and actually end up realizing it’s a work of art in its own right. But you’ll also slowly grow. When we break down our barriers of what we consider “artistic,” we chip away more and more of the snobbishness and conceit that has often been ingrained in us our whole lives. We become more open to considering a wider variety of content as being worthy of our time; worthy of the lofty title of “Art.” And is there anything more central to art than openness and inclusivity?
I had an English professor once who said that art is anything that moves you. I never asked him to clarify what he meant — mostly because I was terrified of him — but I’ve paraphrased his words into something that makes sense to me. Art is anything that moves you, and not necessarily in the emotional sense, but in the literal sense of movement, where you begin and end in different places. (Something merely making you emotional doesn’t automatically mean it’s art; the fact that I cried watching “Love is Blind” the other day is proof enough of that.) All in all, art is simply anything that means you’re not the same person you were before consuming it, in some meaningful — spiritual, philosophical, personal, or even artistic — way.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m not the same person I was before watching “Kung Fu Panda” as an adult. And if you take the time to do so just like I did, neither will you — and it’s not just because it’s an objectively fantastic film. It’s because you’ll be taking your next step, perhaps your first one, towards having a better, wiser view of the world of art around us.
Lina H. R. Cho ’23 is a Comparative Literature concentrator in Dunster House. Her column “Bad Art” appears on alternate Mondays.
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