Skadoosh again ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Skadoosh again

Kung Fu Panda 2
My rating:

Apologies for not doing a Retro Review of the original Kung Fu Panda from 2008. I had the DVD all ready, and in fact I rewatched it the night before I went to see this sequel, but other mundane matters intruded; and yes, I am aware I am already behind on the latest cinema releases. (Curse you, day job that pays my bills and puts food on my table!) Anyway, Kung Fu Panda was the first genuinely good DreamWorks Animation film since Shrek seven years prior, and represented a turning point for the studio that had, during those years, earned a reputation as Pixar's punching bag. A funny-talking-animal movie starring Jack Black as a panda that learns kung fu seemed so similar to the rest of DreamWorks' undistinguished, uninspiring output that it was truly surprising how good it actually turned out. The question now is, can they maintain that level of quality and not fall into the trap that befell the Shrek sequels?

Yes they can - even if they can no longer maintain the surprise.

The Dragon Warrior Po (Jack Black) is now the full-fledged protector of the Valley of Peace, friend of the Furious Five - Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) - but still the son of noodle restaurateur Ping (James Hong). But even as his Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) exhorts him to learn how to achieve "inner peace", a new threat emerges. The peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) has gathered an army of wolves, captained by his Wolf Boss (Danny McBride), with the goal of conquering all of China, and they have a deadly new weapon: gunpowder. Shen is aware of a prophecy, told to him by a soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh), of "a warrior of black and white" who is destined to defeat him, which of course refers to Po - and the history between them leads to disturbing flashbacks for Po that cause him to question his very identity.

I don't agree with the reviews that say Kung Fu Panda 2 is better than the original; I say it's about on par with it. Which, of course, still makes it a pretty great movie. The first one was good because of its clear affection and respect for Chinese culture (I still grin at Chor Gom Prison), its eschewment of the irritating tropes that had become DreamWorks mainstays at that point (pop-culture references, pop hit songs on the soundtrack, etc.), and its commitment to being a proper martial arts movie with legitimately thrilling action scenes. This sequel maintains the first two but falls slightly short on the third; the action is fun and imaginative, but there's nothing as jaw-droppingly awesome as Tai Lung's prison escape here. But it makes up for it with a more emotionally affecting story.

Did I say "emotionally affecting"? Sorry, I meant "shamelessly tear-jerking". It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one that Po is an orphaned member of a tribe of pandas whom Shen exterminated in an attempt to prevent the prophecy from coming true. (The prologue that kicks off the movie pretty much spells this out already.) This leads to flashbacks, both of how Ping found Po as a baby and raised him as his own son, and of how Po survived his village's massacre only because his mother sacrificed herself for him. There is nothing subtle or sophisticated about these scenes, but hot damn they worked, and managed to get cynical and jaded ol' TMBF a little misty-eyed. Baby Po is weapons-grade cute, but the animation, art direction and character design on a whole is so gorgeous that these scenes do achieve genuine poignancy.

Another interesting thing about the first Kung Fu Panda was that it was as much Shifu's story as Po's; the latter's ascension to Dragon Warrior was a redemption of the former's guilt over the failings of his former star pupil. Kung Fu Panda 2 attempts the same thing here with the villain, and gives Shen a characterization that mirrors the protagonist's - the peacock lord also has a traumatic past involving his parents that defines his current identity. It isn't as affecting though, mainly because Shen is the villain - and also a less fearsome one than Tai Lung, being a comedic bad guy rather than seriously scary. I'm less impressed with his peacock fighting style than most viewers seem to be, since the fight scenes move too fast to be able to make out any of the moves.

But I carp too much. It's fun and funny and action-packed from start to finish, and handily achieves everything it aims for. Po is more likable than any character played by Jack Black has a right to be - being merely voiced by him probably has something to do with it. I liked the fact that he's still as much a fanboy as ever, and at one point geeks out over a glorious charge of kungfu masters that he is himself part of. And I especially liked the fact that the storyline nicely balances making him the butt of jokes with making him genuinely heroic and badass; he may be the Dragon Warrior, but he is still a bumbler and none too smart, and the two never seem incongruous. Shifu takes a back seat to the proceedings this time, and the Furious Five are once again played by well-known names who barely get half a dozen lines each. (As does Jean-Claude Van Damme, whom I would have no idea was in this till I checked Wikipedia.)

So no, I don't think this is better than the original, and I don't think it's deeper or more adult as James Berardinelli wrote in his review. But it is, as its predecessor was, a terrifically entertaining animated movie that works as well for adults as well as kids. (Especially for kids; my viewing was packed with 'em, and they had a blast.) The thing about both Kung Fu Panda movies is that they take a premise that could've been kiddified crap, and invest it with enough wit, intelligence and sheer craftsmanship to transcend expectations of a DreamWorks Animation movie called Kung Fu Panda. I mean, seriously, Kung Fu Panda?? Hell yes, Kung Fu Panda - now comprised of two equally great films, with a third almost certainly on the way (as the ending of this one teases). And we'll know to expect great things from it too.