Kung Fu Panda 2
d. Jennifer Yuh Nelson / 2011 / USA / 92 mins
What impresses me most about this movie and its predecessor, is that they have both managed to balance Chinese imagery and culture with an Americanised approach. They may not be attempting to bring Eastern myth to Western shores, but at the same time, this particular panda never displays any intent to do so, never repeating the misguided attempts of films such as The Last Samurai. Jack Black’s recognisable voice, along with super anachronistic, contemporary dialogue roots it in the current wave of excellent children’s films that America has been producing in recent years (many by Dreamworks themselves). The obvious fondness for its setting plays second billing to its devil may care attitude, making for a rollicking tale of kung fu wizardry that’s anything but Po-faced (a-hem).
Kung Fu Panda 2 manages to one-up the original repeatedly when it comes to its action and excitement. It’s beautifully animated, the expressions of the characters sell their believability and provide laughs even when the script falters. The vistas are sweeping and suitably epic, each setting seems to bring something new and fresh to the experience and set pieces pile up with increasing scale, wonderfully executed. There’s a variety of skill on display that’s quite impressive as numerous visual tricks are used to punctuate the action and the animation seamlessly changes its style to suit the emotional needs of the audience. Quite simply, its a treat to watch, one that revels in excess and consistently surprises.
The resurgence of the Karate Kid archetype to our screens through the medium of a panda was a novel one within the first film but the series has lost much of its originality in this second billing, reverting to a story that is horrendously predictable and never creates much of an identity of its own. The direction and animation go far to compensate for this and the emotional moments are dealt with genuine weight as a consequence but in lesser hands the dramatic shifts in the film would have fallen flat with a lack of intelligence and inspiration. Its the wonderful animation that makes the journey to sentimentality worth while.
The story is sweet, with a satisfying conclusion but none of the characters besides Po (Black) himself get any development and are left to meander in the background. Gary Oldman gives a terrific performance as Shen, the villainous peacock, but the character’s motivations are never truly clear, whilst Angelina Jolie’s Tigress succeeds a little too well in her role as a character who is unable to express emotions. Anyone looking for interesting, dynamic characters to rival those of the Toy Story and Shrek series will be slightly disappointed. The script doesn’t help matters. There’s a difference between reworking and evolving gags and simply repeating them. As I said before, it is a story that’s difficult not to warm to but the writers (Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger) offer nothing memorable to accompany it.
Kung Fu Panda 2‘s success will see a third on its way soon and that’s no bad thing. As other critics have pointed out, executive producer Guillermo del Toro’s influence is evident in the darkness and intelligence of Po’s character arc, and perhaps with a few more outings, the rest of the writing can meet that standard. A standard already met and surpassed by its visual artistry.