Have you finished watching a show you assumed was going to be okay at best and mediocre at worst and then think to yourself, "Wow, I was so wrong"?
Well, that's what happened to me after watching "Kung Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny".
I love the Kung Fu Panda movies. The characters, the animation, the music, the action, the themes, pretty much everything about them.
I watched the first TV series, "Legends of Awesomeness", and while I did like some of the episodes, fight scenes, and individual moments, it felt like a mixed bag to me, and I wouldn't really consider it one of my favorite series. It felt scattered because of it's episodic pacing, and I had a hard time keeping track of whether events were canon or not. That's not to say I hated it, because I did enjoy parts of it. It was something I turned to when I wanted to relax my brain and enjoy something for the sake of it. Something like Phineas and Ferb; fun, light-hearted, and relaxing.
However, when it comes to shows that deal with storytelling like "Kung Fu Panda", I do want to get more out of it than just being entertained. I want to feel emotions, learn about morals, or see how a story is put together. That's just not something I got in "Legends of Awesomeness", at least to the standard I would've liked.
This is why I was hesitant to watch "The Paws of Destiny", as I have a degree of concern when my favorite movie series get turned into tv shows aimed at children. My initial thought was that it would be a more comically driven episodic story like "Legends of Awesomeness".
I was wrong. Oh boy, I was so wrong. This show proved me wrong, and that automatically makes it great in my eyes. I love it when a show exceeds my expectations and then some, and "The Paws of Destiny" did just that.
Before going on, I want to say that this review contains spoilers from the TV show. So if you haven't watched the series all the way through, I recommend you do so before continuing.
With that said, let's dig into the review.
First thing I want to mention right out of the gate is that I absolutely love the animation and character models. For a TV show, it is very close to being on par with the first movie's animation. The effects are amazing and full of color, and the scenery is gorgeous. The characters themselves are also wonderfully modeled and animated. It's almost like they took the models from the first movie and put them into the TV show. I have to say that's very impressive. It definitely adds to the visual storytelling of the show.
The music is also great, too. It has a unique kind of oriental/western hybrid feel to it. It really shines in the actions scenes, and adds to the spectacle of it all.
Moving on to the story itself, I love the core cast of Po and his students; Nu Hai, Jing, Bao, and Fan Tong. I love their mentor and student relationship, something that is rarely seen in a family show. I've been longing to see a show that touches upon the theme of mentor and student, and this show does not fail to deliver. We see the core cast grow and learn together, whether it's things about each other, or about themselves. Seeing them grow closer never ceased to put a warm fuzzy feeling inside me. It's all just so adorable and heartwarming, and always leaves a stupid smile on my face.
Watching Po slowly grow into his role as a master to younger students gives more dimension to his character, and brings out other facets of him. Since he's away from the Jade Palace, he has to learn things on his own. While I am sad that we don't see any of the Furious Five or Shifu in this series, I think I understand why the creators chose to leave them out, at least for the first season. Po has to learn how to be a master on his own. When with the Jade Palace warriors, he's still considered as the youngest and inexperienced member of the group. As the youngest sibling in the family myself, I can seriously relate to that.
In this series, Po doesn't have the Furious Five or Shifu to fall back on. He has to handle this himself with the other pandas in the village. I believe that this is why he grows so much. He matures and takes responsibility for his students, and becomes a capable Kung Fu master, while still retaining his child-like attributes that always make me snicker when the timing is just right. It's heart-warming to see just how much he cares for his students. Willing to put everything on the line for their safety, even his own life. He really does become like a father-figure to them, and it's beautiful.
And I just have to say this, Mick Wingert does a fantastic job as Po. He sounds very close to Jack Black that at times, I honestly thought it was Jack. He did a great job in "Legends of Awesomeness", but I feel that he really shines in this show. His emotions come through much stronger here, and I could just hear the amount of heart he was putting into his performance. There were many times throughout that when he was sad or upset, I just wanted to give him a hug.
Jack and Mick, you guys nailed this character and I love it!
As for the four new main characters, each of them are likable and relatable. They may have started out as one-note, but as the series went on, they also grew and matured into great masters. Nu Hai learns how to be a leader and gains the necessary courage to be one, Bao becomes more humble without losing his confidence, Fan Tong learns to stand his ground in the face of fear, and Jing learns to be gentler while still fighting back when need be. There are other lessons that each of the characters learn, but these are the biggest ones that help with their growth. Because they are still children, they still have room to develop even more as characters, and that makes me want to watch the next season even more.
Not to mention, in regards to their voices, for casting children, they made excellent choices. Each of the kids do a great job in emoting and adding depth to their characters. Seriously, these are some talented kids they got in the cast.
I also want to shout out to the voice direction in this show. Every single line of dialogue is delivered with such purpose and heart that it's impossible not to be invested in each of the characters, even the antagonists.
By the way, casting Steve Blum as the villain of the first season was absolute genius. Seriously, he sent chills down my spine whenever he was on screen.
Okay, I've gushed about the voice acting long enough. Time to get back on track.
Something I want to touch upon is the show's balance in tone. The action and comedic moments remind us that this is suppose to be a fun adventure, and some of the witty quips the character exchanged were absolute gold.
Grandma Panda had the best. There was one she had in episode 12 where I almost fell out of my seat laughing.
I want to say that I greatly appreciate that they were not afraid to take the story to darker places. I was honestly shocked by how dark the series got. There were times where I had to pause the video and sit in my seat for a moment because I was so stunned. All I could think of was, "Yeah, that just happened".
Most of them came from the antagonist, who I gotta say was probably more threatening than Tai Lung, Shen, and Kai combined. Yeah, I said that. Not that I don't like these villains, because I do. But gee whiz, Jindiao was super creepy and demented, and some of the scenes with him really had me saying, "Okay, well that happened". I can see why they designed him as a vulture.
There's a moment in episode 11 where he really showed just how threatening he was. Oh boy, I did not see that coming, but it reminded the audience that characters in this show can and will get hurt.
While this is a family show, and they don't dwell on the dark moments for a long time, they are not going to sugar-coat things when the situation turns dire. They show that actions have consequences, and that the characters can get hurt.
This is something I greatly appreciate in a family show. It doesn't talk down to its audience, and treats their intelligence with respect. At the same time, it never loses it sense of fun and adventure. It's very well-balanced, and kept me invested all the way throughout.
Now, to offer some criticism. I only have a few complaints, and none of them are severely detrimental to show, just small things.
There were times where I felt that the comedy was shoved into places for the sake of having it in, not because it worked with the narrative. It just felt out of place and/or overdone. Things such as Bunnidhrama constantly smacking Po with his cane for no reason just got old really fast. It would've been better if it was done more sparingly.
Another criticism I have is the dynamic between Li Shan and Mr. Ping at the beginning. It just felt like a complete one-eighty from their reconciliation in the third movie, and felt really out of place. Not to say it was all bad, as I thought it got better by the end, but I think the jealousy and animosity they had at the beginning was kind of weak and out of place.
As I said though, it did get better, and their dialogue soon became funny and more like friendly banter.
I also did catch some animation errors, but they are so minor and insignificant. Plus, I was enjoying the show too much to care. And pointing them out would just be nit-picking, and that's not my thing.
Overall, this show was definitely worth the watch. I will admit that it did have a bit of a stigma attached to it because of what I saw in "Legends of Awesomeness". But that was totally unfair. This is a different show, and needs to be judged on its own merits.
Now, I understand that a lot of what I'm saying is completely subjective, and the way this show resonated with me might be different for someone else. That's ok. Everyone enjoys different things, and everyone will see stories and art in different ways. For me, it's one of Dreamworks best works, and is right up there with "Race to the Edge" and "Trollhunters".
There are great character moments, amazing Kung Fu choreography that meshes well with the addition of chi, and the visuals are bright and stunning. There's no filler either. Every episode counts, and the pacing is nearly flawless. The foreshadowing is so brilliant that I'm not going to mention any of them here. You really have to experience it on your own. Finally, the emotions felt so genuine and real that I laughed, smiled, and even cried.
It's all just so beautiful! Dreamworks, you did a fantastic job, and I applaud each and every person who worked on this project!
I highly recommend this series to anyone who loves the Kung Fu Panda movies. You can definitely get something out of it. I know I did. And I cannot wait for the second season. I have a feeling it's going to be just as awesome as this season.