"Kung Fu Panda 2" – The Panda’s Kung Fu Continues to Be Strong
The only two martial arts movies I can think of that really deviate significantly from a few stock narratives are Zhang Yimou’s Hero and the Jet Li vehicle Fearless. After that, even the truly great examples of the genre like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Once Upon a Time in China series, Enter the Dragon, or Drunken Master 2 are all infinite variations on a very small set of themes. If these films manage to carve out genuinely beautiful art or artistry, it is done within the rigid confines of the genre. The martial arts film and the romantic comedy are perhaps the quintessential “how are we getting there?” movies, where the real measure of quality is in the execution. I stated as much when reviewing the first Kung Fu Panda movie, which is still the only DreamWorks Animation movie that can really stand tall alongside the collected works of Pixar (although How to Train Your Dragon comes frustratingly close). Kung Fu Panda 2, shares many of its predecessor’s strengths, turning in another enjoyable film that more than compensates for a lack of originality with a sufficiently energetic execution.
After the events of the first movie, the title character Po (Jack Black) has taken the mantle of the Dragon Warrior and leader of the Furious Five (reprised by Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Lucy Liu, and Seth Rogen). When the evil peacock Lord Shen (a hammy, scenery chewing Gary Oldman) develops a weapon that can utterly destroy even the most advanced kung fu masters, only this band of brave warriors stands between him and the complete subjugation of all of China. As with the first movie, even hearing a bit of the plot synopsis is going to give away almost all of the movie’s story beats. Indeed, the movie itself goes ahead and gives everything away right up front, with a prophecy all but spelling out the entire plot in the first few minutes of the movie. If there is originality to be found in Kung Fu Panda 2, it will be in how the movie manages to swerve its way to its inevitable conclusion, tossing in curveballs, stalls, and head fakes to throw the audience off track. The movie’s story also hinges on a question vaguely raised but explicitly not answered in the first film: how did the panda Po end up with the dingbat duck noodle shop owner Ping as his father? Normally, whenever I sense an Origin Story coming on, I’ll reach for my revolver, but while I’m still against this bit of unnecessary explanation in principle, I must also admit that it is pretty well done and manages to tie together several different plot threads in interesting and unexpected ways.
Admittedly, it does so by injecting a much darker, more sinister tone than anything in the original movie, starting with a systematic ethnic cleansing of pandas and going on to repressed memories and deep-seated fears of abandonment. Many other reviews find this film’s darker turns inappropriate or unduly harsh, but it’s nothing more or less upsetting than what you’d see in any number of Bible epics from the classic studio system in Hollywood or hear in even some more sanitized versions of classic fairy tales. I find such criticisms to be the palest echoes of the sentiment that “cartoons are just for kids” and as such should be carefully scrubbed of anything that might maybe be a little bit upsetting. I have exceptionally little sympathy for such opinions for the patronizing way that they sell short both the capacity of children to handle potentially frightening material and the medium of animation to tell stories for audiences above the age of 6. If I have a criticism of this darker tone, it’s that it means there aren’t quite as many laughs as there were in the first film, but there are still enough of them to keep things from being too dour. In fact, it is rather satisfying to see how the movie manages to keep this dark, ugly past from infecting Po himself. A lesser film (including a tremendous number of martial arts films) would have used this inciting incident to make him into a roly-poly, grim-and-gritty, angsting avenging spirit growling for vengeance. It is to Kung Fu Panda 2‘s credit that it carefully avoids this cliché, and even uses it as a springboard to send Po in the exact opposite direction. Indeed, the film’s best tricks are intricate balancing acts for its lead character, since he is also quite successfully played as both a buffoon and a genuine martial arts master throughout the movie.
As in the first film, Jack Black is perfectly cast as Po, embodying the character believably and beautifully through all his ups and downs. The celebrity stunt casting of the Furious Five is again largely wasted; other than Angelina Jolie’s Tigress, none of them get much more to do than the first movie. While he was a lynchpin of the first movie, Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu is barely more than a cameo, with his function replaced by a marvelous Michelle Yeoh playing an old goat of a seer. Her performance in Kung Fu Panda 2 is a delight in the same way as Hoffman’s Shifu and Randall Duk Kim’s Master Oogway were in the first movie, injecting great depth and humor into the “cryptic wise old master” archetype to keep it from feeling stale. On the other hand, Gary Oldman’s Lord Shen is a stereotype’s stereotype, but it’s still great fun to listen to him dive into his villainous role with theatrical abandon, hamming it up as he did in many of his earlier roles. His design is also one of the most interesting of the film, exhibiting equal amounts of frailty and steel. Finally, James Hong again steals every scene he’s in as Po’s father Ping, except that he’s given a much meatier role this time around. While he still has to carry some of the comic relief as he did in the first film, he is also called on to carry a share of this film’s emotional payload as an adoptive father facing the real possibility of losing his son both physically and spiritually. Like Po, it’s pretty remarkable how Ping is balanced so well between the comedic and the serious.
As one would expect from a sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2 goes bigger and broader than its predecessor. There is a much greater sense of scale in this movie, ranging from the broad vistas and landscapes that Po and the Furious Five travel through to the bustling metropolis of Gongmen City. Many of the set pieces are far more intricate than anything the first movie ever attempted, such as the battle set in the royal tower of Gongmen City and a fleet-footed rickshaw chase through the city’s streets and back-alleys. I am also greatly tickled by the broad range of animated styles utilitized throughout Kung Fu Panda 2. The hand-drawn opening and closing credits of the first film remain one of my favorite things about it, so it’s a joy to see that art style return in the sequel to chronicle some of Po’s repressed memories. The opening and closing sequences are now done in a beautiful mimicking of Asian shadow puppetry done with a batik print color palette. While there’s no bonus scene awaiting at the end of the credits as there was in the first film, it’s still worth sitting through them all just to admire the artistry on display.
In fact, the one technical aspect where Kung Fu Panda 2 disappoints is, ironically enough, in its martial arts fight sequences. There is still a tremendous amount of creativity on display in those fight scenes, especially in the way its non-human characters utilize kung fu. It’s also a joy to watch Po integrate so beautifully with the Furious Five in the same way that the Five did with each other in their battle with Tai Lung in the first film. Unfortunately, too many of the fight scenes are just too manic and poorly edited for the audience to follow what’s going on (and I can only imagine how much worse it is in the darker, more potentially disorienting 3D version). Great cinematic martial arts sequences are marked by longer takes and less camera artistry, the better to allow us to take in the physicality of the performers. There seems to be really good fight choreography for Kung Fu Panda 2, utilizing environments and non-human body shapes quite creatively, but the movie just doesn’t let us see it well enough. One of the best sequences is also one of the smallest, as Po attempts to convince a pair of kung fu masters to join him when they’d really rather stay in their jail cells. I would have been more satisfied if the rest of the movie’s action scenes had this one’s sense of clarity.
Kung Fu Panda 2 isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, although it gets much closer than many other film franchises, especially those from DreamWorks Animation. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable variation on old themes, and is quite satisfying and enjoyable. Jeffrey Katzenberg is insisting on driving this franchise into the ground as well, with multiple sequels promised and the upcoming TV series inbound. However, if this film is any indication, I think Kung Fu Panda will be yielding much higher creative returns than anything else the studio has managed so far.