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Non-Review Review: Kung-Fu Panda 2

I think the original Kung-Fu Panda might be my favourite Dreamworks animated film. A lot of people go on and on and on about how that particular studio’s animation can be measured against that of their competitor Pixar, with arguments about intellectual and emotional maturity and sincerity. Some argue that the reason Pixar dominates their field is because they don’t treat animation as something just for children. Others suggest that they have a mathematical formula devised to break human hearts. Personally, the feeling I always got from Pixar films that I only fleetingly sensed in the work of Dreamworks, was that those creators were essentially making their dream movie – each and every Pixar film seems lovingly crafted according to a creative vision not based around the “rules” of the industry, but around good ideas and the kinds of stories those people like to tell (and like to hear). I think that is why the original Kung-Fu Panda worked so well, and also why Kung-Fu Panda 2 does such a great job as a follow-up.

They know kung-fu...

I’ll begin with a confession. I don’t hate Jack Black, despite some of the work he has produced. That said, his stock characters can grow very tiring very quickly. As such, it’s remarkable that Po is such a lovable protagonist. He is basically the quintessential Jack Black character. He’s large, clumsy, a little awkward, completely blown away by his surroundings, is the source of much physical humour, and is prone to utter somewhat ridiculous one-liners. Perhaps his appeal lies in the fact that a lot of the coarseness Black typically brings to protagonists has been toned down, or but I think it’s the fact that the movie makes sure that we are just as impressed with events as Po is.

There’s a lovely moment near the start of the film, where Po – the Dragon Warrior – leaps into action with the Furious Five. As they prepare to attack a bunch of scavenging wolves, it slows down so that we can get a sense of the awesomeness of the spectacle, as all six bear down on their targets. Po, leading the charge, pauses and looks at the kung-fu masters by his side – and he smiles to himself. This is awesome. Po is living his particular dream, and he’s loving it. The movie is crafted in such a way that it’s hard not to share some of that warmth and excitement.

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The plot of the film is fairly standard stuff. The original film saw Po prove the most unlikely kung-fu champion in cinematic history, and the sequel ups the stakes just a little bit. Po begins to have mysterious flashbacks to his childhood, when he was abandoned by his parents and adopted by a goose running a noodle store. James Hong is superb, again, in the role of Po’s adoptive father, and the movie crafts a loving relationship between the two without ever seeming to force it. Meanwhile, as Po deals with his identity crisis, a mysterious new foe has arrived – heralding with him what might be the weapon that will destroy kung-fu. It’s an efficient set-up, but the story isn’t where the movie really succeeds.

It’s all about the execution. The movie isn’t going to make you cry uncontrollably. It’s not going to give you a new philosophy on life. It’s simply a very well-crafted action adventure film, with some great emotional beats thrown in. The technical work – from the animation to the soundtrack to the visual design – are all top notch, calling to mind any number of classic films with great affection. In particular, the villain’s forge, where our bad guy is silhouetted against rising fumes in a red light, seems like a set lifted right out of a sort of cheesy seventies kung-fu B-movie.

This is what awesome looks like...

Basically, the film does what it does really well. There are two fantastic sequences, actually rendered in surprisingly good 3D. This comes from a guy who rarely notices the third dimension. The first fantastic set piece sees Po and the gang launching an attack on their new foe, and finding themselves under siege in a collapsing building. The second is one of the better sequences I’ve seen this year, as the film flicks between standard CGI and an Eastern animation style as Po remembers the last time he saw his parents, while searching for inner peace. It’s a great character beat, and it’s handled with remarkable technical proficiency. It’s just good storytelling.

You can tell that the people crafting the film absolutely adore their source material. That sort of affection shines through and is contagious. It’s hard not to smile at the fact that Jean-Claude Van Damme pops up for what amounts to little more than a cameo, or that the movie gleefully subverts any number of traditional action movie moments – with Po declaring his dramatic reappearance just a little bit too early or making an emotive confrontational speech just out of earshot of the enemy forces. By the way, casting Gary Oldman as the movie’s villain is always a good choice – although it’s very telling that the actor has so perfected his American accent that his native British accent seems almost strange to my ears.

All right kid, don't get peacock-y!

Kung-Fu Panda 2 is a winner. It’s funny and smart. It’s not revolutionary, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s just the product of the sort of genuine love that Po shares with his adoptive father.

4 Responses

  1. Eloquently put. You always somehow spin gold with your reviews and I get a real boost reading the positive ones.

    Excited to read your “First Class” write-up – it seems it will also be glowing – but I haven’t gotten to see it yet. Friday can’t come soon enough!

    • Thanks Stu! I don’t know, I worry I’m too positive at times, but I think I just love cinema. Sure, it might make me less impartial, or more of a fanboy, but I honestly want to love the films I see. It’s a shame so many make it so difficult.

  2. I recently watched this movie, it has humor for both kids and adults. The story is outstanding and the animation is topnotch and this movie by far is one of my favorite movies besides Shrek and Over The Hedge

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