The invitation to my first press screening came to me in the form of an email from a regional public relations firm representing Dreamworks Pictures. Finally. The elusive digital ticket to a top secret showing of a beloved animated franchise had made its way into my own private domain. A red carpet extravaganza was to be had. I was now an initiate into the film critic Illuminati. I had finally made it. Like Conrad's Marlow, I, too, had found my Kurtz.
I arrived at the nondescript theater on the South Side. I bring my mom as my plus one because my girlfriend would rather shop for dining room tables than bask in the glow of Hollywood insiders. Approaching the entrance doors, I see a line of poor, standing souls who have printed out boarding passes to Kung Fu Panda 3 in the hopes that those invited guests who have already reserved their seats, like myself, would fail to show.
There are security guards wearing insignia-adorned blazers patrolling the outside area. I ask one of them where the animated panda movie is screening. "Are you a V.I.P.?" the middle-aged man asks me. My humility beckons me to answer in the negative. I tell him that I am a film critic, the first time I have ever said this to a stranger.
The security guard smiles and ushers me into the theater hallway where a handful of important looking people are congregating in anticipation. I ask another blazered individual where I can find the local PR representatives, and he warmly points me toward their direction. I tell the reps my name and they hand me a comment card to be completed after the screening along with two vouchers for free popcorn and drinks. In the time that it took to walk from my car to the theater, it seems that I have indeed become an important person.
My mother and I are told to sit wherever we like in the theater. I see one seat reserved for a Dreamworks studio executive, so I pick a spot toward the back row where I can inconspicuously observe the entire proceedings. Everyone is dressed rather casually and I pride myself on not wearing the tuxedo that I had planned to rent. By happenstance, another film critic sits to my left. We introduce ourselves and engage in geek speak about all the movies we've recently seen and the inner workings of film criticism. He has brought his daughter, and I laugh to myself when I spot this tiny child covering her eyes every time the film's villain appears onscreen.
Kung Fu Panda 3, like the two franchise films preceding it, is a delightful, entertaining romp designed and written for both children and adults alike. The beauty of modern animated movies is that they explore mature situations that children are sure to face as they come of age and blossom into adults. These filmmakers are able to include such heavy subject matter because these themes are delivered in a subliminal manner; the topics are touched upon with just a few sentences and then made palatable by a well-timed punch line. In this aspect, modern animation — and Kung Fu Panda 3, in particular — is an artistic act of subversion in that its filmmakers have introduced toddlers to quarter-life quandaries in an attempt to instigate an evolution of consciousness that might result in this younger generation being better equipped to handle life's multitude of problems at an earlier age than previous generations, effectively curtailing the millennials' perpetual malady of arrested development.
Crippling self-doubt; self-transformation; conforming to predefined archetypes; undergoing an identity crisis; defining family; parental deceit; grassroots community organization; realizing the younger generation can teach its elders — for me, these dense topics are typically reserved for intellectual indie films, movies the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves to recognize on a yearly basis. And yet, they are just a few of the easily digestible themes that are briefly explored in Dreamwork's Kung Fu Panda 3.
Maybe you are one of those people who doesn't take modern animation seriously, and that's OK. Maybe you are too intellectual to stare at vivid colors for 90 minutes, that's OK too. But, maybe you're into art, visual art. Maybe you are into painting?
If this much is true, then Pablo Picasso has given us, perhaps, the greatest reason to recognize modern animation as one of the highest of art forms. "We should all go through life like children," he famously stated.
So, if you consider Picasso a genius, and if you consider me a genius for quoting Picasso, then become a genius yourself and return to your inherent childlike state by watching a Kung Fu-equipped panda save his village by battling a spirit realm villain who has stolen the life force of the world's martial arts masters.
Kung Fu Panda 3 (PG) 95 min.
Dir. Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh; writ. Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger; feat. Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan and Bryan Cranston