KUNG FU PANDA 2 Review:
- The first Kung Fu Panda film was a really nice surprise, and to me, it was the movie that made me look at Dreamworks Animation in a whole new light. Kung-Fu Panda had so much visual inventiveness, such memorable characters, and so many fun, funny moments that it was right up there with just about any other animated film that came out that year, finally putting Dreamworks on a level playing field with the almighty Pixar. Since that time, Dreamworks has been on a certified roll. How To Train Your Dragon was awesome. Megamind kicked ass. And now, Kung Fu Panda 2 hits the scene and keeps the streak alive. It's pure fun from start to finish - a great martial-arts adventure that is a feast for the eyes, and also adds a new layer of depth to what now looks to be an ongoing franchise.
After being frustrated lately with live-action summer movies that look underwhelming in 3D - that are still trying to figure out the right balance between CGI-enhanced fantasy and budget-saving realism - it felt great to pop on my 3D specs and be 100% transported to a bright, beautifully-crafted animated world that positively jumps off the screen. Kung Fu Panda 2 looks amazing - the level of detail and craftsmanship in the animation is stunning, with numerous scenes in the movie that are suitable for framing. This really is a stunningly gorgeous movie. Aside from the top-notch CG animation, the movie inserts eye-popping hand-drawn animated sequences that serve as flashbacks to our hero Po's dimly-remembered early childhood. And that's in addition to the woodcut-style opening sequence that introduces the film and ends it over the credits. Suffice it to say, this is one to see in 3D and on the biggest screen possible.
The story of KFP2 picks up a short time after the ending of the first film. Roly-poly panda Po is still goofy and clumsy, but he is also now a certified kung-fu master, and his reputation as a local hero - as the "Dragon Warrior" - is known throughout the land. Po spends his time thwarting badguys with his compatriots, The Furious Five, and things are going surprisingly smmothly - Po and the Five have developed some badass teamwork skills (as witnessed in an astonishing early action scene), and are a force to be reckoned with for evil-doers everywhere. One day, however, Po and his crew fight a pack of invading wolves, and the symbol on one of the invader's armor triggers something in Po - repressed memories from his time as an infant. From there, Po begins to finally question who he really is and where he came from (he was, apparently, the only one who never thought it odd that he was a panda but his father a goose). As it turns out, the Big Bad behind the invading wolf army has some sinister ties to Po's origin, and suddenly, Po's latest mission becomes very, very personal.
I don't want to spoil too much, but I'll just say that the movie has a pretty cool plotline that serves as Po's "secret origin" of sorts, but also gives us a great villain in Lord Shen - voiced by none other than Gary Oldman. So ... yeah, it's Gary Oldman as a vile, scheming, power-hungry villain. You can pretty much anticipate that awesomeness will ensue, and it does. Although, aside even from Oldman's effectiveness, the visual design of Lord Shen - a peacock who uses his long tail-feathers as a fan-like weapon of asskickery - was just plain sweet. Speaking of which, the character design in this franchise continues to be top-notch. Even if they only have a couple of key scenes each, I still loved the new characters of Master Croc (voiced by Jean Claude Van Damme!) and Master Oxen (Dennis Haysbert of 24!) from a visual standpoint. The way the movie takes all this animal iconography and blends them with kung-fu archtypes is really cool. And to that end, like Part 1, this latest movie deserves respect for the way it lovingly pays tribute to - and serves as a primer for - all the great kung-fu classics. There's even a little meta-history thrown in, as the movie deals with, on a certain level, the introduction of firearms and technology into old China, and the effect such weapons had on combat and warfare. Who knew ... Kung Fu Panda = educational on multiple levels.
Aside from all that though, this movie just plain dazzles with its incredible action scenes. The first film had a couple of mind-blowing set-piece action sequences, but Part 2 tops it with several fights, chases, and battles that are among the best in any movie so far this year. It's just one scene after another of pure awesomesauce, directed with kinetic joy by Jennifer Yuh. Seriously, get this woman on more big action movies, stat! She imbues Kung Fu Panda 2 with a sense of dynamism and boundless, videogame-like energy that makes it a pure rollercoaster ride from start to finish.
Are there weaknesses? Sure -- as with the first film, though to an even greater extent in this one, the lack of time spent with the other members of the Furious Five is a bit head-scratching, especially given the big-name voice talent behind them. People like Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, and David Cross are literally given only a handful of lines each, with only Angelina Jolie's ass-kicking feline Tigress given a major character arc. Sure, the movie isn't really *about* these side characters, but a couple more memorable moments for each might have added something. Other than that, I guess my one real complaint is that the movie plays a bit fast and loose with its stakes. What I mean is, there are at least a couple of instances where it seemed like the film was going to actually kill and/or severly injure a major character, only to reveal that, nevermind, they're fine! This *is* a kids' flick, and I wasn't expecting graphic violence or wanton death, but by the second or third time a character seems dead, only to be miraculously alive, it gets to be a little much - and you begin to question the potency of the supposedly-imposing villains when their best super-weapons end up causing only minor damage to our heroes.
That said, KFP2 does manage to have a good deal of heart and soul, more so, I think, than Part 1. The movie's most heart-tugging moments involve Po and his relationship with his adoptive-goose father, the doting noodlemaker Mr. Ping (hilariously / touchingly voiced by James Hong). A lot of nice moments between the two - and it's a credit to Jack Black as well and the work he does as Po. Sure, it's cool to hate on Black in some circles, but he really is pitch-perfect and very funny as Po - and he gets in a ton of great, oftentimes hilarious lines in this one.
Overall, I had a great time at Kung Fu Panda 2 - and I'd say without hesitation that it's the most purely fun movie of the summer so far. There's even a mysterious cliffhanger ending to get you primed and ready for Part 3. Anyways, I'd say run don't walk to check this out. See it in 3D, and prepare to experience some of the most stunning action and animation you've seen to date. The kung-fu, in this one, is strong.
My Grade: A-