Kung Fu Panda was a signal that Dreamworks Animation had turned a corner, that the studio was no longer just making movies with “talking animals… [who] do things that animals don’t normally do… and they all make this face” and had instead crafted a visually impressive piece of animated adventure comedy. Beginning with a stunning jailbreak scene where Ian McShane’s villainous snow leopard character escapes from a subterranean prison, the first Kung Fu Panda set itself apart from previous star-studded voice casts in other Dreamworks films (cough… Shark Tale… cough) in large part due to the meticulously designed action set pieces. Unfortunately, the new Nickelodeon television series based on those films, subtitled Legends of Awesomeness, rips out the elements that made the original film such a surprise, leaving behind a derivative, cliché-laden children’s show that recycles moral platitudes adequately but is otherwise indistinguishable from countless other programs.
Even as a series meant for kids, the best thing I can say about Legends of Awesomeness from this premiere, which is only a premiere by default, as two other episodes aired as “specials” in the past two months, is that it's inoffensive. There are some wacky bits, a few minor moments of humor that are still derivative but funny enough to elicit a laugh. What’s left here is a cheaper, less polished continuation of the Kung Fu Panda universe, with choppy animation that sticks to as few locations as possible, excising the visual pyrotechnics from the films. It doesn't even have any of the original voice cast; even Lucy Liu, who was assumed for some reason to still be lending her voice to Viper, isn’t credited on IMDb for anything past the specials. Losing a voice cast filled out by Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Seth Rogen, and others doesn’t just take away a bunch of famous names, but actors who turned in above average work for their characters. The replacement Po, Mick Wingert, has the standard Jack Black over exuberance down in his yelling, but otherwise, none of the characters sound remotely like their film counterparts, but that doesn’t really come into play since only Mantis has more than a couple lines.
This episode features an easy riff on the “Po screws things up as much as possible,” where Shifu punishes Po for eating in the training hall by commanding him to clean up the whole place. Thanks to some extra sticky dumplings, Po destroys the complicated training mechanisms and seeks out Shifu’s former friend Tietao, who originally helped build the training hall, to come repair it in secret. That turns out to be an unwise decision, since Tietao blames Shifu for his lack of progress as a student of Kung Fu and vows revenge by building large mechanical creations to take down the Jade Palace and rule the Valley of Peace. For a temporary villain, Wallace Shawn, best known to younger audiences for The Princess Bride and voicing Rex in the Toy Story series, provides an admirably silly enemy, always with his apathetic teenage son in tow, yet another cliché.
Every single last element of this episode has been done before, but perhaps not with quite the Kung Fu twist that the show puts on it, especially with the dumplings. But this isn’t a show that’s aiming to be cutting edge or original, just mildly entertaining, which it is. It comes after new episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants, a show that hasn’t been cutting edge for a long time, as it continues to rise in cultural dominance, but even that show still has such a uniquely bizarre visual style and universe that functions on a much more entertaining level than something as banal as Legends of Awesomeness.
Clearly, Nickelodeon believes in television series from Dreamworks. The network has aired over 100 episodes of The Penguins of Madagascar, a spinoff of the only funny part of the Madagascar films, another worldwide blockbuster film series that barely averages a 60 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Legends of Awesomeness already has a 52-episode production order to fill, but from the looks of this premiere, it’s looking for something that’s merely passable. This isn’t going to harm any kids, but it’s not going to impress them either.
- When you make the transition from watching Disney/Nickelodeon/ABC Family to the level of the major networks and FX/USA/TNT/AMC/HBO, you get a very different set of commercials. I haven’t seen ads for Barbie DVD tie-ins, Buzz Lightyear action figures, overly sugary cereals, or Dr. Dreadful’s Zombie Lab kits.
- One more commercial note: Razor scooters are getting a little too complicated. Electric scooter with a sparking bar that you press down with your foot to make sparks on the pavement? That’s got to be a fire hazard. Okay, that’s it for the premature Andy Rooney impression.
- I did laugh at the runner involving Mantis’ breakup and reconciliation with his girlfriend, a caterpillar who just turned into a butterfly. The moments between him and Po were quick, deft, and funny.
- Looking back over that voice cast for Kung Fu Panda again, it’s full of amazing talent that doesn’t really get a chance to show with so few lines given to the supporting players in the script. Rogen, Cross, Jackie Chan, Dan Fogler, and others get so little time to deliver any kind of comedic punch.