Really, it shouldn't have worked. It was the same old formula, a humor-based animated film in the vein of Shrek. It was a textbook case of irreverence for the original story archetype—the Hero's Journey—to force a few laughs. The cover had a really bad (but somehow good) punchline. And to top it all off, Jack Black was playing the main character.
And yet, there was something different about this film, a mystical element that merely increased in the two surprisingly good sequels that followed. It was not merely characterized by jokes in the middle of serious moments, but serious moments in the middle of a joke. At the core of DreamWorks' characteristic irreverence, there were striking moments of solemnity.
In essence, Kung Fu Panda worked because the story structure was modeled after Po: there was no secret ingredient to the plot, and yet that was all it needed to be great.
The Shrek films went wrong by letting their primary characteristic become their only characteristic. There were fairy-tale jokes by the dozens; and believe me, Kung Fu Panda never forgets that it's about a panda that does kung fu. Yet Kung Fu Panda doesn't let itself become defined to that genre. It sets up a genuinely compelling villain; it utilizes animation's untapped potential for martial arts. And, at the core, it explores the nature of identity.
The secret ingredient is Po, literally. In the Shrek films, Shrek himself becomes a plot device for guffaws and jabs at Disney. But the Kung Fu Panda films focus on a character that is both endearingly geeky, but also surprisingly serious.
Do you want to know why Kung Fu Panda transcends the DreamWorks animated comedy? Because Shrek is jaded, and Po is sincere.
To stay true to the character, Kung Fu Panda had to fuse two halves: the inherent hilarity in a panda learning kung fu, and the absolute naive sincerity of the one learning it. As a result, it becomes both. In a way, the whole series is told in a structure that models the inward journey of Po, in pursuing his identity.
This is why it works. And this is why we find it oddly moving. Isn't that strange? The same film that says, "Panda, we do not wash our pits in the Sacred Pool of Tears," also says this: "There is a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present."
It's beautiful. But perhaps one of the most moving images I've seen in the trilogy is from Kung Fu Panda 3. As Po finds balance within himself, the image of a dragon starts to form around him. The music soars, and he says, "Am I the son of a panda? The son of a goose? A student? A teacher? I'm all of those things. I am the dragon warrior."
And that - the complete acceptance of both his heritage and his upbringing in discovering who he really is - is a picture we find deeply moving. We all are on a quest to discover who we are; and Kung Fu Panda taps into that elemental desire in an unexpected way.
Yes, it had no right to become a great film...but Po had no right to became a great warrior. That's exactly why it works.