LOS ANGELES — There was a moment near the end of “Kung Fu Panda” so satisfying, so achingly adorable, that I wished I’d been secretly taping so as to immediately put it up on YouTube for the world to see.
Sorry, Jack Black — you were great and everything, but that final scene was cold stolen. The thief: my son, just a few weeks short of his third birthday.
As the credits rolled, he sprang from his seat, flashed into the aisle and began to whip himself into a jaw-dropping exhibition of kung fu fury.
Feet planted, his torso twisted and his tiny limbs whirled, locking arms and hands into holding positions that would arch the eyebrow of David Carradine himself.
Thrilling though it was, I had to wonder for a moment whether I’d made a terrible mistake.
Had I been too trusting? Are we blindly marching our kids into these animated movies with little regard for the subject matter or material? Was I too dense to consider whether “Kung Fu Panda” — a martial-arts film, by rights — was even meant for the little ones?
Reasons to be wary
Not really. This is going to generate letters, but I knowingly and willfully allowed my toddling son to watch the original “Star Wars” some months back — if he could handle Darth Vader and a cantina full of creepy extraterrestrials, surely he could take cute and furry critters engaged in a little choreographed pugilism.
There were reasons to be wary, of course, that go beyond the PG rating of “Panda” (most animated features are G). The combat is fast, furious and carries on throughout, with every blow landing more emphatically than the last. The villain’s destructive bent is forceful, sinister and intimidating. And the mysticism is a little over even my former-hippie head.
If I had thought this all wasn’t going to make an impression on him, the roundhouse kick he nearly planted on an exiting toddler certainly proved otherwise.
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For his preschool teachers next week, that is.
And for the folks who were trying circumnavigate the whirlwind performance as they made their way up the aisle. Not to mention his mom, who had vetoed this moviegoing choice before I cunningly turned it into a writing assignment. (The young women behind us, swooning over the cuteness of his demonstration, seemed to share my harmless-fun view.)
So why did it all make me feel so ... proud?
Well, partly because if that kick in the direction of the exiting toddler had connected, it would’ve been pure accident. In fact, every move was in the direction of no one; there was no target, no intent, and no menace in these attacks.
And I’ll take some of the credit for that.
A ‘learning moment’
See, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only wacky dad in America who woke up Saturday morning, downloaded Carl Douglas’ 1974 one-hit disco wonder “Kung Fu Fighting” (don’t bother with the movie soundtrack version; the original’s better) and showed off a series of martial-artsish dance moves throughout the house.
And to be sure, this ill-thought-out display — done purely in anticipation of a family outing to see “Panda” — was rewarded with a tiny punch in the groin.
This, grasshopper, is a “learning moment.”
While not the first lecture on hitting, this one took on some extra gravity (even if delivered in a slightly higher voice). We are not practicing “hitting” kung fu, I advised — we are practicing “pretending” kung fu. Kung fu is like exercise, I explained. Or dancing. Or what basketball used to be.
This all seemed to sink in.
The movie itself was redemptive, too: The violence is painstakingly bloodless and cartoonish; not even the hardest blow sends up a cringe. The bad guy is vanquished by a lovable panda whose victory one-liner brings a belly laugh to every seat in the theater. And the movie’s only discernible death is one of the most peaceful passings in cinema history — if we all went this way, the medical industry would be out of business.
The other reason I’m not feeling bad today is that I know I’m not alone. That theater — and assuredly hundreds more like it — was packed with kids hovering below 3. One father, sitting a few rows up and trading actual karate-chops with his entire brood, made me feel especially self-righteous.
And no, my son wasn’t the only little one who was kung-fu fighting in the aisles when the lights went up. The truth is, they just about all were. Just so happens that when my guy got to whirling and chopping, all the kids who were nearby stopped, retreated and watched in awe.
Hu-ah! That’s my boy.
Now excuse me while I go ponder whether we can fit the dojo’s bill into the family budget. Hey, maybe as a movie-choosing parent, I tend to run on the too-early side — but this kid, I’m telling you, is only a few sessions short of expert timing.
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