A Brief History
Kung Fu Panda was a wonderful surprise in 2008, largely winning over audiences with its mix of genuine humor, truly thrilling martial arts action, and heart-felt characters. It followed the story of a panda named Po, adopted son of a goose chef and destined to take over the family business— except for the fact that he’s completely devoted to the practice of Kung Fu. From there it grew into a movie series with two sequels, and a larger franchise with multiple short films, TV shows, comics, video games, theme park attractions, and more.
Kung Fu Panda Holiday is one of those short films, and it originally premiered in 2010 on NBC before Kung Fu Panda 2 was released. In-universe, the holiday special seems to take place in between the events of the first and second movies.
What’s It About?
After becoming the prophesied Dragon Warrior in the first movie, Po continues to learn about his new duties—specifically, how he has to host a grand feast for all the Kung Fu masters during the Winter Festival. This conflicts with his usual holiday plans for spending time with his father and their neighbors and friends. Po has to balance duty and family, facing difficult choices while still causing a fair amount of hilarious high jinks along the way.
Part of the success of the original Kung Fu Panda in 2008 also included its surprisingly nuanced devotion to the art of Kung Fu and its Chinese culture. The main antagonist’s transgressions double as violations of the Confucian code for filial piety. Master Tigress is an homage to the actual Tiger style of Chinese martial arts, and the techniques of other animal warriors largely follow the same pattern. Much of the visual design remains true to China due to the film crew’s study of the nation’s aesthetic.
So at first glance it seems like Kung Fu Panda Holiday could be a train wreck of shoehorning Western holiday traditions onto Chinese culture in a very misguided cash grab. DreamWorks Animation is undoubtedly looking for a profit as an ongoing business, but they didn’t release a faulty product with this special.
Kung Fu Panda Holiday remains firmly in ancient China as fantastically envisioned in the original movie. It’s the Winter Festival, not Christmas. While there are some small nods to Christmas in terms of aesthetics like colors, costuming, decorative lights, and other things, their ultimate context remains in China. While red is one of the traditional colors for Christmas, it’s also a color for “good fortune and joy” in Chinese culture; the lights during the Winter Festival are paper lanterns. Small details like this also point to similarities between different cultures, rather than shoehorning traits that don’t fit. This common ground is found on an even larger scale with the meaning of the Winter Festival within the special; it’s ultimately about family spending time together in celebration, something an ideal Christmas shares.
This thoughtful approach to integrating culture is likely due to much of the original movie’s cast and crew returning to create the special. They’re also back to inject the same level of humor and character depth. Jokes are rooted in the specificity of character personalities and their situations, and some truly entertaining visual gags. One scene captures the panic of rapid preparations for virtually anything—not just holidays—with a wildly imaginative and metaphoric style that strikes a hilarious chord. (It even became a minor meme.)
Besides inciting laughter, the cast develops and interacts in captivating ways that respond to developments from the original Kung Fu Panda, allowing for further character growth. Underneath his quirkiness, Po’s father is deeply afraid of his son drifting away as he advances in Kung Fu, and ultimately leaving him alone. Shifu isn’t just Po’s mentor or virtually his boss, but another father figure (and still with his own lessons to learn). True to character and bringing nuance to a dilemma, Po wants both things—he’s passionate about his new position at work, but wants to spend time with his family. With a conflict that turns out to be very down-to-earth, Po is once again an emotionally endearing and relatable character.
Kung Fu Panda Holiday is a short film that works on a lot of different levels—characters, humor, culture, and more. To see it wrap up with virtually everyone coming together to celebrate over a warm and inviting feast makes for a genuinely entertaining and poignant holiday special.
How Christmassy is it?
It taps into the universal themes at the core of an ideal Christmas—family gathering and spending time together, sharing in each other’s warmth, and massive feasts. But if you’re looking for the other hallmarks of Christmas like Santa Claus, reindeer, elves, gifts, and decorated trees, Kung Fu Panda Holiday isn’t it. The special deliberately isn’t this, because as much as it taps into universal themes of the holidays, it’s also drawing from the specific details of Chinese culture, and this is one of its strengths. It entertains and informs in new ways.
This special is a compact package filled with loving detail. It even has quite a few rewatch bonuses. For instance, look closely when there’s the verbal gag about Shifu writing notes on a folded napkin in case Po forgets an important mantra for the sake of feast protocol. It’s not just a throwaway quip. Though a background detail that’s largely out of focus when compared to the major characters acting hilariously and reaching new epiphanies, the art crew still made sure Po’s napkin was literally the only one covered in writing, while every other napkin at the dinner table remained perfectly blank. That is the level of attention and care taken in crafting Kung Fu Panda Holiday.