Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Stars: Jack Black, Gary Oldman, Dustin Hoffman
Running time: 90 mins
As a DreamWorks animation that didn’t feel like a juvenile pandering pop culture cash-grab, 2008’s Kung Fu Panda came as a shock to many. It displayed a sincerity and craftsmanship that mirrored the work of DreamWorks biggest rival, the consistently excellent Pixar. There have been a few stinkers between then and now, with 2010’s exceptional How to Train Your Dragon just enough to sustain faith in the animation studio. Now, with the release of Kung Fu Panda 2, it’s a relief to say that DreamWorks have stuck to the high ground with a film that is beautiful, engaging and genuinely very funny.
The sequel picks up pretty much where the first left off; Po the panda is now the fabled Dragon Warrior, he trains with the legendary Furious Five (no connection to the fast car movies) and he still really really likes to eat. However, it’s not long before he must venture forth into China to discover his past, find inner peace and defeat the evil peacock Lord Shen, who’s found a sinister new use for fireworks (hint – it’s blowing stuff up). The story hits a lot of the same beats as the original, but also takes elements introduced in that film and does interesting things with them. Sadly, the movies plot fails to take any creative risks and has an unfortunate aversion to any real sense of peril. This sensibility is especially detrimental to the film’s contrived sunshine-and-roses ending. A last minute surprise reveal undermines all the films drama up until that point and manages to set up a threequel in the most obnoxious way. They could have at least save that kind of fluff until after the credits.
It’d be easy to pigeonhole the movie as either a kids film or as a Jack Black film, and that’s because it honestly is both of these things. What’s impressive here is how it navigates these potential pitfalls with finesse. As someone who has grown weary of the Jack Black shtick, I gotta say, he’s a lot easier to stomach when wrapped up in a big cuddly panda. Po feels much more like an earnest and enthusiastic kid, as opposed to the kinda sad, past his prime caricature typically associated with the real life Black. The kiddyness of the film is also outweighed by its tremendous action set pieces. Neither gruesome nor brutal, the fights here are instead spectacles, lying somewhere between slapstick shenanigans and gymnastic showcases. It works and, though there’s little sense of danger, the brawls are still awesome and engaging. The action is matched by the film’s sense of humour. Sure, there’s the odd recycled jokes that’ll wear out adults quicker than kids, but the film has some terrific moments and a great sense of comic timing. It’d have been nice to see more of the Furious Five, not only because of their A-List casting, but because there seems to be plenty of potential for comedic interplay. Time restraints considered, though, their back seat roles are understandable.
Kung Fu Panda 2 is a gorgeous, colourful film, which is why a 3D screening is not recommended. The effect is well implemented and the sense of depth is certainly present, but the darkening effect of 3D technology makes the film’s diligent colour palette feel muddy. Likewise, the action scenes are full of so much speed and detail, the blurriness of motion in a 3D screening simply does not do it justice. However, even the drawbacks of a 3D presentation can’t detract from the superb and imaginative character designs or the authentic reimagining of ancient China.
The film also, on occasion, implements different animation styles, with varying degrees of success. Some backstory is told through vivid shadow puppet displays which suit the style of the film impeccably. Sadly, the animators choose a more modern style for Po’s own flashbacks and, though well enough executed, the transition isn’t subtle and it just feels a little out of place.
Though by no means surpassing it, Kung Fu Panda 2 does honour to the legacy established by the original. It’s funny, exciting, and an all round well-crafted piece of family entertainment. It’s rare to be able to give a film such a universal endorsement but , despite pulling some punches, Kung Fu Panda 2 has fought for – and earned – its place among this summer’s top film’s so far.