This Oscar season, PG-13 for Ugly Cast will be flipping a cordial bird to the arbitrary practice of rank-ordering movies. Instead, we will highlight a handful of Movie Things We Loved, with no pretense of objectivity or internal consistency. Deal with it.
Most great artists – poets, painters, Photoshop geniuses – work alone. Milton didn’t settle for a “producer” credit on Paradise Lost. No executive swooped in to make Joyce’s Ulysses more relatable for mass audiences. And while it takes dozens of performers to bring theater and music to life, the compositions ultimately come from a Shakespeare or a Mozart. (Or, in rare and splendid cases, a Shakeszart.) Great art is simply not written by committee.
Movies, of course, are all created by committee: a director, a hundred actors, a half-dozen screenwriters, a roomful of producers, cinematographers, costume designers, makeup artists, and so on. Movies are born not from a singular act of creation, but from a series of massive compromises. They are, along with architectural landmarks, the most enormous and expensive artistic projects ever attempted by human hands.
In short, the Kung Fu Panda franchise is our culture’s answer to the pyramids.
I watched Kung Fu Panda 2 opening weekend, in an empty theater, and loved it. King Lear it’s not, but many hands made for lighthearted work. The screenplay – penned by four authors, including the singular Charlie Kaufman – moves nimbly from action to comedy to the soul-searching of a panda named Po, planting ideas at the beginning that pay off deliciously at the end. Throw in the lovely animation, the engaging voice work, and the sophisticated take on myth and identity provided by executive producer Guillermo del Toro, and you’ve got a model for how to make a big-budget family film that’s worthy of the name “art,” if not “great art.” Kung Fu Panda 2 may have begun as a baldly profit-driven calculation, but the collaboration of talented people can lift a piece of art above its commercial origins. In the end, Kung Fu Panda deserved every penny of its $665 million worldwide box office haul. That was, by the way, the largest among ever for a film directed by a woman – in this case, first-time director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who ought to receive copious high-fives from strangers whenever she walks down the street.
It’s fun to sit and watch the credits roll after a movie like this. The names start with Jack Black at the top, and continue down through 1500 others, including 59 alone who worked on the animating of light. Among the 1500 is Mona Shokraj, who handled business and legal affairs.
Nice work, Mona. They couldn’t have done it without you.