Saturday, June 11, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2

Another of the many sequels releasing this summer also includes Kung Fu Panda 2, which is the topic of our discussion. When Kung Fu Panda was released in 2008, I was not prepared. Like Po, the titular Kung Fu fighting panda bear, the film was a diamond in the rough -- a wise Buddhist parable about destiny, identity, mentality and harmony, which also happened to be a cute and funny cartoon that tripled as an epic kung fu movie. Needless to say, these were not achievements readily discernible from a title like Kung Fu Panda and the tagline “featuring the voice of Jack Black!”

The pudgy Kung Fu master is back: Jack Black voices the panda Po in this sequel to the hit animation. He is now an acknowledged warrior and local hero, while retaining an essential cuddliness and rotundity. (Somehow, a buff and slimmed-down Po would be suffering from serious mojo-loss.) He is still hanging out with the Furious Five, led by the sleek and formidable Tigress, voiced by Angelina Jolie, but must now save China from a new enemy, the evil peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). Perhaps more importantly, Po must confront a personal demon: namely, the mystery of how he came to be the son of a local restaurateur, who is in fact a goose, called Mr Ping (James Hong). Could it be that he is not Mr Ping's natural son, and that he is – gulp! – adopted? And that his real parents are out there, somewhere?(i'm sure you all would be wondering at this story line - obviously Po is a panda and his father "adoptive" is goose, so it is out of the question that he is the natural son of the goose)

Po finally has the life he dreamed of (battling bad guys as a Kung Fu legend), but that happiness is soon shattered. One day, while in the midst of battle, Po is confronted by the Wolf Boss (Danny McBride), a villain whose armor bears a strange insignia -- one that sends all kinds of repressed memories flooding back into Po’s mind, depicting his days as a child and hinting at his true origins.

These unlocked memories knock Po off his kung fu center, and he is instructed by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) to learn new techniques of inner peace and harmony if he wants to both settle his soul and take his kung fu to the next level. Of course there is little time to meditate: The Furious Five (and Po) soon learn of the evil Lord Shen’s (Gary Oldman) return -- a nefarious kung fu master who is connected to the wolf bandits, and has developed a new weapon that could conquer both kung fu and China itself. The Furious Six set off for the city to stop Shen and save the day. And so, it is on the road to avoid all the hard questions facing him that Po inevitably meets his destiny -- one which goes far beyond his initial quest to become The Dragon Warrior.

While this may be JenniferYuh’s first feature film as director, she is familiar with the hand-drawn animation as she directed the sequences in the first film (remember the opening sequence of kung fu panda 2?). Another interesting addition is how Po fights alongside the Furious Five. Instead of fighting as individuals, they work in tandem to disperse foes in interesting combinations. While they sometimes end up a blur, it never becomes frustrating. The fights are relentlessly entertaining, and the infusion of humor into the skirmishes feels fresh.

Unfortunately, not everything in this sequel is better. One of the weaker parts of Panda 2 is in the main baddie. While Tai Long was capable of single-handedly defeating the Furious Five, Shen has no such skill. Considering he is a peacock, I had my doubts about his ability to fight to begin with. Luckily, they didn’t try and sell him as an overly powerful fighter but instead a thinker. That isn’t to say that Shen can’t hold his own at times; his use of metal talons and daggers hidden within his tail help give him an edge.

Like this summer’s other big animated feature (Pixar’s Cars 2), Po and Kung Fu Panda are a recognized brand now, and inevitably that change in awareness was going to affect the film. Where the first installment had breathing room to build a tight and cohesive multi-layered narrative, this sequel just dives right into a formulaic summer blockbuster plot. After ten minutes we have the conflict, villain, and the lesson Po needs to learn all set in place at rushed speed. 
Where the first film implemented action sequences at logical and organic points in the story, this sequel functions more like a three-act superhero movie: fight sequence in the beginning, pivotal action sequences in the middle, big set piece climax at the end. While some of the action is definitely slicker (now that Po and the Furious Five have more cohesive group techniques), a lot of it inevitably falls into that category of jumbled, no-stakes, hard-to-follow sequences you see in so many modern action flicks. A slightly disappointing downturn.

Thankfully, most of these issues begin to clear up some time past the halfway mark of the film. What we get towards the end is the smarter, more meaningful and resonant Kung Fu Panda that many critics fell in love with. The filmmakers indulge less in arbitrary action and Jack Black schtick, and spend more time developing Po and expanding those of themes of identity, mentality, harmony and destiny that made the first film so great.
The mere fact that Panda 2 makes you want to think back and become retrospective is impressive. For a film that appears to just be a barrel of laughs on the outside, there is a surprising amount of heart built in. With the exception of the final set piece (a battle on the sea), I can’t say the new locales of the sequel were all that exciting -- especially in 3D. Most of the movie takes place in cities and/or buildings which (impressive though they are) is a stark contrast to the open terrains and plush Chinese countryside featured in the first film. More interiors also mean darker tones, and darker tones and 3D glasses mean murkier picture quality, which ultimately detracts from the viewing experience. The film was conceived for 3D, so there are some great ideas put into play that totally utilize the medium -- but other times (mostly during the second act fight sequences), the murkier tones, tighter shots, and convoluted kung fu group mechanics made it hard to tell what was going on. The good news is that the film ends on a strong note, with an epic and (literally) explosive battle that should leave you Street Fighterfans especially satisfied.

Kung Fu Panda 2 could have been a quick cash-grab without any soul. The film was a follow-up to a smash success, and yet I can’t stop thinking about how much the film impressed me. Having been an outspoken fan of the original, it brings me joy to praise its sequel. With the oddity of improving in every facet except for the antagonist, Panda 2 shows that hard work can pay off and DreamWorks can be trusted to improve on a previous product. 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...