Saturday, May 28, 2011

Paws of Fury: KUNG FU PANDA 2

Dreamworks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 2, like Kung Fu Panda before it, delivers lively action sequences (and slapstick) with choreography capable of equaling, even besting, live-action adventure. Animation has the possibility to be the triumph of imagination over practicality, and here that’s completely the case with characters flipping, punching, flying, kicking, and stomping through intricate hand-to-hand combat in ways that would simply be too dangerous and impractical to ask of real creatures. In the summer of 2008, Kung Fu Panda had the best action sequences you could find on the big screen. I’m not so sure 2 will end up in a similar place – the novelty’s gone, for one thing – but it sure is fun.

The first film, set in a medieval China populated solely by anthropomorphized English-speaking animals, featured Po (Jack Black), a roly-poly panda, discovering his true calling to be a kung fu master. He trained with red panda Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) to become one of a group of kung fu masters (a Lucy Liu viper, an Angelina Jolie tiger, a Jackie Chan monkey, a David Cross crane, and a Seth Rogen mantis) who protect a humble little valley. That film gained its fun and its momentum from the challenges in the training of the Kung Fu Panda as he prepared to help his new colleagues defeat an outside threat to their safety.

In good sequel form, Kung Fu Panda 2 ups the ante. There’s an evil peacock (Gary Oldman) who has become determined to take over China by harnessing the power of fireworks to blast away any kung fu challenge that comes his way. His first step towards this goal took place a couple dozen years earlier when, after receiving a prophecy that a black and white warrior would defeat him, he slaughtered a village of innocent pandas. One panda, a baby, managed to escape unharmed and was found and adopted by a noodle-cooking goose (James Hong). That panda was Po. So, this time the conflict’s personal, but only for the audience at first. Po doesn’t know where he came from, and his adopted father only knows so much. It’s a mystery to him.

Rather than merely recycle the plot beats of the earlier film, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (with uncredited assistance from Charlie Kaufman) take the opportunity to flesh out the backstory of the central character. Rooting the new plot’s impetus in Po’s past, along with his desire to learn more about it, helps to propel the emotions as well as the action, giving it a bit of pleasing depth. The fighting animals head off across the wilderness once they hear that this peacock has taken over his ancestral town and is planning to use it as a base from which to launch his dastardly deeds. With the mystery of Po’s origins weighing heavily on the plotting, exposition here is given a satisfying kick of emotion.

Under the direction of Jennifer Yuh Nelson, the animation is gorgeously rendered, tactile and fluid, beautifully lit in all the right ways. This could be a film just to look at, worth the price of admission just to stare. But luckily the story the visuals tell is worthy of attention as well, though it feels a bit too formulaic in its structure, which isn’t helped by the opening prologue that tells the audience all about the panda massacre which robs Po’s late discovery of much of it’s power. But he’s searching not just for information. Most importantly, he’s searching for a way to find inner peace. It may be trite, it may be an easy indefinable plot point, but it’s also a quest imbued with such elemental qualities that it’s hard to argue with it.

It’s not a film of zen meditation and grim personal history. There’s boundless irrepressible energy that pushes the whole thing forward. Not just a fast zip to the credits, this is a speedy sprightly delight with a surprising level of emotion. It’s a fun time even though, with an all-too-obvious structure and an inelegantly deployed ensemble (other than Po, characterization remains surface level), I felt the fun was ultimately a little less than what the first film dished out. This is shaping up to be a fine series of kung fu movies for kids, and one that feels respectful of the live-action genre used as inspiration. And if some of those kids, as they get a little older, feel driven to dive deeper into said genre, that could only be an added value to cinephilia.

Added note: It’s a shame that a fun teaser of a final scene, that hints at a direction for a future plot line, is separated from the end credits by the words “The End.” Who do they think they’re fooling?

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