Review: 'Kung Fu Panda 2' sets a new bar for animated action
In my review of Rango, I mentioned that it took the crown for animated slapstick action. For me, the movie Rango took it from was Kung Fu Panda. After holding this crown for less than a season, the chameleon must relinquish it to the panda.
But there is much more than slapstick going on in either of these two movies. While Rango was, of the two, more of a movie-lover’s movie, Kung Fu Panda 2 may end up being the favorite among furry fans.
The movie begins like the last — with a stylized flashback. Though not technically traditional, hand-drawn animation, it's still a nice touch. This animation is used throughout the film, which delves deeper into Po the panda’s past.
During this opening, we are shown a majestic palace ruled by a king and queen peacock who apparently invented fireworks. Their son discovers a less frivolous use for this invention, and is told by a goat fortune-teller that if he does not change his path, he is fated to meet a black and white warrior in his future.
The prince, being a forward thinking kind of guy, decides genocide is the best way to change this path. We now know why Po has a goose for a father. This movie, though still bouncy, is far darker than the first, and not just as a side effect of 3D projectors.
As the flashback ends, we find this once-exiled prince has returned with a collection of kung fu-defeating cannon, intending to conquer China.
Po (with the Furious Five) must fight to save China and kung fu itself, all while dealing with his buried past.
Almost the entire cast returns from the original Kung Fu Panda, minus the obvious disappeared tortoises and villainous snow leopards.
Sadly, Dustin Hoffman's Master Shifu plays a much smaller role. Angelina Jolie's Tigress steps up to a certain extent as the wise teacher; her character is the only one that can honestly be said to have a true arc other than Jack Black’s Po. New characters continue the tradition of having voices split between American comedians (with Danny McBride as a head henchman wolf), British villains and wonderfully miscast martial artists.
Possibly the funniest casting of the original Kung Fu Panda was Jackie Chan as Monkey; Chan spends half his own movie’s trademark credit outtakes struggling valiantly against his preposterous stunts, and the other half struggling valiantly against the English language. Once again, his lines are kept to a minimum, but are memorable. Likewise, in Kung Fu Panda 2, we find Jean-Claude Van Damme, the guy who turned down Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables, as a pessimistic crocodile, and former Bond girl Michelle Yeoh as a bearded goat.
Our villain, Gary Oldman's Shen, is a true blackguard. Keep in mind this guy is a peacock; you don’t find a lot of truly menacing peacocks out there. Character animation, voice actor and story come together to make a truly memorable foe — one who'll cross any moral line to achieve his goals.
Finally, credit should definitely be given to James Hong's Mr. Ping, Po’s adopted goose father. Despite playing a small part in overall screentime, his role manages to be a touching and at the same time very funny. As Po’s relationship to his adopted father is the emotional centerpiece of the film, keeping the part funny was probably the challenging part.
I’m happy to report the character is now selling tofu in addition to noodles for this movie.
A good portion of the movie’s run time is devoted to over the top slapstick action set pieces. These could easily get tiring, but the movie knows when not to take itself too seriously. A scene involving a blind rabbit musician was a standout.
Po’s fighting style seems to be based on how much fun he is having at the moment; when he forgets to have fun, like in an early encounter with Shen, he suffers defeat. A hero who doesn’t take his own action scenes seriously seems like a good way to completely defuse tension, but luckily the Furious Five are there to remind us that there is something at stake.
Now, I suppose, would be a good time to bring up 3D. I see it as the exact same thing it was when Bwana Devil came out; a gimmick. I won't say it ruins movies, but it doesn’t add anything. In Kung Fu Panda 2 it doesn’t draw attention to itself, which makes me wonder what the purpose was.
I began by comparing Kung Fu Panda 2 to Rango. All in all, Rango is the better, more challenging movie of the two. But I’d be willing to bet that the majority of people will enjoy Kung Fu Panda 2 more. If you're not interested in seeing both, you're in the wrong fandom.