Kung Fu Panda currently scores an 88% percent Fresh on the Tomatometer, rarefied air usually reserved for Important Message Documentaries and Experimental Asian Films on two week runs in New York and LA. That’s an overstatement, but still—88% for Kung Fu Panda? Here’s the deal: Panda is a perfectly enjoyable cartoon. It’s not offensive or insulting; sure, it’s formulaic, but it doesn’t spring plot “twists” on you as if you’ve never seen a movie before, and it doesn’t rely on poop jokes or too-clever double entendres to try to be “hip.” The message is clean and simple: Don’t give up on your dreams, kids, and don’t be rude to your dad who gets too excited about you taking over the boring old family business. Jack Black doesn’t try too hard; he’s goofy about the panda’s weight without turning him into a mean fat joke.
Most importantly, Kung Fu Panda, though predictable, is never boring. It doesn’t overreach in its can-do platitudes, as if it’s the first inspirational sports movie ever made, and Panda delivers the sports training montage with professional gusto (an extended Miyagi-esque chopsticks battle over a dumpling). There’s no preachy political subtext that tries to turn Kung Fu Panda into some sort of metaphor for Kim Jong Il. Maybe you could argue that the movie bastardizes the Chinese-ness of martial arts training for the protection of community, but Kung Fu Panda doesn’t pretend to honor Chinese culture by ripping it off and making it palatable for Americans. Rather, it’s “Chinese” in the way that Springfield-style Cashew Chicken is “Chinese”—that is, it’s “Chinese” in the way that French Fries are “French.” In other words, they don’t try to make the Kung Fu Panda into The Last Samurai. For eight dollars, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse.
This is, pretty much, the critical consensus. Which, incidentally, makes this 88% rating all the more curious. Critics aren’t hailing Kung Fu Panda as some sort of masterpiece, like many are saying about Wall-E. The film is “professional,” in the way that a mid-tier arena band who “brings energy” and “gives the fans their money’s worth” is professional. I can’t say I feel ripped off by Kung Fu Panda, and I had a good time at REO Speedwagon. But there’s something about Kung Fu Panda scoring a favorable rating from 88% of critics that seems, somehow, wrong. One explanation is that our critical standards have sunk to the point that “Fresh” means that merely not offending or boring me—enough so that I’ll tell my readers, hey, go see this thing, it won’t piss you off.
I think there’s another, more accurate explanation. Sometimes appellate courts issue opinions “per curiam,” usually meaning that the decision is so non-controversial, uninteresting, or unimportant that none of the judges can muster the enthusiasm to write an actual opinion, but the court must nonetheless grant a motion or affirm a case as a matter of procedure. I think that’s what the 88% Tomatometer rating for Kung Fu Panda is about. After perusing my colleagues’ reviews, it seems that critics, as a whole, have no reason to single out Kung Fu Panda as particularly noteworthy or having any value outside of its own summer movie shelf life. But, as a group, we’ve decided that yes, as a matter of procedure in our duty as the Court of Thumbs, Kung Fu Panda is a decent-enough movie, thus we issue this Tomatometer Fresh Rating per curiam. Next movie, please.