Wednesday, June 01, 2011
2008’s Kung Fu Panda should have fallen into that category. Conceptually, it came across like a hellish cinematic launch pad for a merchandizing bonanza. What kid wouldn’t want a cute stuffed animal that could do martial arts? Especially one voiced by wacky Jack Black and featured in TV spots scored to Tom Jones’ long-past-played-out ditty “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting?”
Now, just three short years later, we have Kung Fu Panda 2, which shares its predecessor’s cheerfully kinetic visual sense and reverence for all things chop socky, but lacks its narrative oomph. Our hero, Po (Black), is still a lovable goofball with an unconquerable appetite, albeit one who has mastered martial arts and earned his rightful place fighting alongside the Furious Five – which includes legendary warriors Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) and Mantis (Seth Rogen). All is well and good until villainous peacock Shen (Gary Oldman) happens onto the scene. Disgraced after being exiled from his homeland many years ago for a vicious campaign of panda-cide, Shen intends to conquer all of China by unleashing his new catastrophic weapons which utilize... gunpowder!
As if a canon-wielding, metal-taloned peacock with terrible dreams of domination and an army of ravenous wolves wasn’t enough to contend with, Po must also grapple with the newfound discovery that his adoring goose dad Mr. Ping (James Hong) may not actually be his biological father(!). Unfortunate for our hero, the only individual capable of divulging his mysterious parentage is Shen, who is none-too-forthcoming with answers. In order to triumph, Po must overcome his emotional baggage and achieve inner-peace – an elusive state of being that only true kung fu masters are capable of attaining.
Directed by series newcomer Jennifer Yuh, and written by returning scribes Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, Kung Fu Panda 2 wastes no time in catching viewers up to speed. Shen’s threat is established immediately – courtesy of a beautifully animated prologue which depicts his violent backstory with traditional Chinese paper dolls – and Po and the Furious Five are off and running shortly after being reintroduced. However, unlike the first film, which had a sturdy narrative structure, this second entry feels repetitious and slightly aimless. We can only watch our heroes track down the villain and engage in hand-to-hand combat so many times before we start to check our watches. Further, the connection between Po and Shen doesn’t feel as powerful and spot-on as it should. Sure, it leads to a gorgeous anime revelation in the spirit of classic heartstring-tugging Disney, but even that moment feels more like plot housekeeping than an organic story development.
While the script often lets the picture down, there are still plenty of dazzling visuals to maintain a hold on the viewer’s attention. There’s an imaginatively chaotic rickshaw chase through the streets and a valiant ascent up a rapidly collapsing tower that are both brilliantly choreographed and staged, and a climactic battle involving a fleet of glowing, red lantern-lit ships that’s a feast for the eyes. Although the background extras often look like cut-and-paste copies of one another (a common DreamWorks deficiency), the film’s fantastical representation of mythic ancient China is distinctive and well worth savouring on the big screen. That said, my favourite bravura bit comes early on, when Po and the Furious Five dive off a cliff into action and the camera follows them as they plummet down, down, down, until we almost feel our stomach rise up.
3 out of 5