Kung Fu Panda 2
DreamWorks goes back to the well for Kung Fu Panda 2. Luckily, they haven’t found it dry. While not the meatiest fare, there’s plenty to entertain, and not too heavy on the Jack Black either.
The basic storyline is familiar from the last time around: Po (Jack Black) is a panda and the unlikely Dragon Warrior of kung fu legend. With the backing of the Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) — and under the tutelage of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), he trains and keeps the peace in the valley where he lives. And of course he periodically checks in on his father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), the business-minded goose who runs a noodle shop in the town.
Now, we’re informed that some time ago Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), the son of the peacocks ruling Gongmen City, invented fireworks, which he used to entertain. He desired more power, though; he figured out how to take his invention and make it into a weapon. A soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) foretold that he would be stopped by a panda, so he took an army of wolves and slaughtered all the pandas around. On his return, Shen is thrown out for his actions, and spends the next years building up his army and his cannons to retake his home city and from there the whole of China.
Of course, we know that Po must have survived the genocide, to be adopted (a shock, no?) as a baby. But when Shen defeats the kung fu masters guarding Gongmen, Po and the Furious Five must destroy the weapon that threatens to end kung fu, and Po must fulfill his destiny to avenge his birth family.
So yeah, it’s pretty epic stuff, same as last time. There’s also the whole adoptive existential crisis Po has to go through along the side in order to “find inner peace”. If you’re looking for Shakespeare, this ain’t it. Still, it’s a solid enough script for what it is, by the same writers as the original movie, so it’s all very familiar, safe ground. It’s a little light on the characterization, though; most of the Furious Five outside of Tigress don’t really have much of a point here. Thankfully, Jack Black has also been toned down and isn’t provided with endless opportunities for shtick that could have dragged the whole production off the rails.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson steps up from her long-time position as a DreamWorks storyboarder to the directing post and does a fairly competent job of it. She nicely balances the two differently-toned storylines with the action, which is exquisitely choreographed in the first half. The first major battle is wonderful, with Hans Zimmer and John Powell’s score weaving seamlessly with the sound effects and some really amazing camerawork. There’s also a fantastic eagle-eye shot in Gongmen where we watch Po and the Furious Five carom through the streets in a dragon costume, looking like nothing so much as a game of Pac-Man.
The second half, unfortunately, does seem to fall back on pretty standard shots and action sequences. The really creative bits seem to have been front-loaded, leaving a thin storyline to carry the rest of the show through to the end.
One other notable choice is to do all the flashbacks in more traditional animated styles. The prologue is made to resemble a Chinese puppet theater, while all of Po’s memories of his fateful childhood seem to be done in a more traditional ink-and-paint style. Somehow it adds a certain poignancy I’m not sure would be as effective if Nelson had stuck with the computer animation for those sequences. As a side effect, the transitions from ink-and-paint back to computer graphics really show off exactly how detailed and realistic the latter has become.
It really is a beautiful movie, if not the deepest one. The 3D was yet again used to no real benefit, so save your money and see it in a brighter, more colorful 2D print if at all possible.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.