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Kung Fu Panda 2

It’s hardly a secret that the movie industry has become flooded with so many sequels, prequels, adaptations, reboots, reimaginings and rebootquels. As I’ve already pointed out in a previous entry, that oversaturation has reached a new high this year and it’s led to a lot of frustration among moviegoers. Too often, I’ve heard that such extensions and do-overs are pointless, they’re shallow cash-grabs, they could never re-capture what made the original work, filmmakers are totally lazy, they’ve all run out of ideas and so on. I don’t necessarily share those views, perhaps because I actually pay attention to the constant stream of original material going through my local arthouse theaters. But that’s beside the point.

The point is that all too frequently, it’s difficult to argue that turning a film into a franchise or taking a franchise one film further is probably a bad move. Comedies, for example, are notoriously incapable of generating sequels that are as funny or charming as their predecessors (*hem hem*). Yet I know that every once in a blue moon, there comes a film that’s actually funnier and better-made than its prequel. A sequel that manages to improve upon the original. Such times are extremely rare, but they are oh-so-glorious. Kung Fu Panda 2 is one of those times.

Let’s start with the basics: When we check back in with Po the eponymous panda, he’s still quite visibly Po. He still eats compulsively, he’s still clumsy, still overweight, still goofy and he still geeks out uncontrollably at anything related to kung fu. Having said that, this isn’t one of those unfortunately common times when a character has completely regressed to where he was at the start of the original film. He’s smarter (though not by much), he’s more confident and though he certainly isn’t a kung fu master, he’s competent at the very least. Jack Black’s usual mugging has been scaled back considerably, which helps a lot. Hell, Po even looks like he’s somehow lost a few pounds between movies. Most importantly, Po is now part of a trusted and formidable team with the Furious Five (yet they’re not called the “Furious Six.” It’s always “the Dragon Warrior and the Furious Five.” Whatever). There is one moment when the team got dangerously close to throwing Po out and sending us all back to square one, though that moment mercifully passed before the scene was through.

One of my biggest complaints with the last movie was that the Furious Five didn’t get nearly enough screen time, dialogue or development. This movie throws that problem right out the window by saddling Po with the Furious Five through pretty much all of the movie, sending them to take on the bad guy together. It really is amazing to see just how perfectly Po works with the rest of the team, but I’ll talk more about that later. Right now, I’ll just say that Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross and Lucy Liu really get to make these characters deeper, funnier and more awesome than they ever had the chance to in the original film. Jackie Chan still takes the booby prize, I’m sorry to say, but I suppose that has to do with the character’s casting more than anything else. With all respect to Jackie Chan and all of his amazing talents, a voice actor he ain’t.

Anyway, there’s a trade-off: To make more screen time for the Furious Five, the filmmakers took screen time away from Master Shifu. This disappointed me at first, since I thought that Shifu was the strongest and best-developed character in the last film. However, Shifu does get a few awesome moments here and there, he plays a considerable role in Po’s development even when he’s off the screen and Dustin Hoffman still voices the role wonderfully. As such, I can’t really knock the movie too hard for leaving him out so much, though I can still wonder why he has Oogway’s staff when it was so clearly destroyed at the end of the last film.

Easily the most improved character was Po’s adopted dad, and that genuinely surprised me. Mr. Ping was just a one-note joke of a side character in the last film, and a terribly unfunny joke at that. Yet this film inevitably addressed the issue of Po’s actual parentage, so of course Mr. Ping had to play a rather large role in the proceedings. And color me shocked that the filmmakers managed to imbue this stupid, stupid character with a huge amount of heart. It’s quite amazing, really.

Last but not least, there’s the film’s villain. This time, it’s Gary Oldman voicing a peacock. Though I have great respect for Oldman as an actor, I’ve noticed that he only has two settings: There’s the “serious and dedicated thespian” mode, and the “hammily chewing all the scenery he can swallow mode.” I’m sure you can guess which one Oldman went with here. Luckily, Oldman’s character is designed in such a way that it benefits from this approach and makes him completely different from the last film’s antagonist, both of which are huge positives.

Tai Lung was angry at his father figure, too blinded with rage to see that he was being a selfish and vindictive egomaniac about the whole thing. Also, he was powerful enough to destroy a city with his bare hands. By contrast, this film’s Lord Shen knows that he’s being an angry, selfish and vindictive egomaniac, treating that attitude as part of his revenge against his own parental figures. He’s not powerful because he knows kung-fu — sure he has some moves, but he’s no master — he’s powerful because he has a dangerous new toy and he’s childish enough to use it.

Tai Lung was formidable because he was a one-tiger army. Shen is formidable because he has an army at his command. They’re equally dangerous, but in different ways. That’s some nice variety.

The writing — easily my chief complaint with the last film — is a lot better in this film all-around. Yes, the morality is still a bit heavy-handed and yes, a few of the jokes are still juvenile. Still, the dialogue, pacing, humor and characterization are all much, much better here than they ever were in the previous film. It helps a lot that this film’s narrative doesn’t have nearly as many cliched or predictable moments as the last one did. Indeed, there were quite a few clever turns and twists to be found here, even if they didn’t necessarily make sense (a few too many characters avoid death by cannon, is all I’m saying).

But if you’re a fan of the original film, I know what you’ve been thinking all this time (if you haven’t already seen the film, that is): “What about the visuals?” Well, the animation in this film isn’t as good as it was in the last film. It’s better. I’m not even kidding (though I am a touch ashamed) when I say that certain moments of Po’s development arc were so beautifully presented that I shed a couple of tears while watching. Take Po’s last stand against Lord Shen, for example: It shouldn’t have worked, because the idea behind it was so ridiculous. It was such a deus ex machina move that I should’ve called B.S. right there in the theater. But I didn’t. I sat watching and I lapped it up. You know why? Because it was fucking awesome, that’s why! It was just one of those times when solid character development and cool shit happening was worth suspending a little disbelief.

Perhaps the most obvious visual difference between the two movies is that this one is in 3D. Dreamworks publicly announced their policy a while back that all their animated films will be made in 3D and I’m glad to see that the practice is paying off because this 3D looks great. Even during the darker scenes, the screen is always bright enough to clearly see everything. The pop-out moments are notable enough to give some extra oomph, but subtle enough that the glasses aren’t a necessity. Those who insist on a 2D screening (I know a lot of you are out there) will enjoy the movie just fine, but those who want a 3D screening will get their money’s worth, guaranteed.

Then there’s the fight choreography, which is far and away better here (though not quite as humorous) than it was in the last film. It helps a lot that Po can take care of himself, which makes our protagonist far more active throughout all the movie’s fight scenes. Yet the crowning achievement of these action sequences is in how our heroes work together. The previous film showed that the Furious Five could fluidly cooperate to kick ass, but they only got a few scenes to do so. Here, they’re all kickass all the time, and watching them pull off complicated maneuvers with each other and with Po was just staggering.

So, a few minor nitpicks aside, it seems like this movie kept everything that was great about the first film while improving where the predecessor was weak. That would make it close to perfect right? Well… no.

For starters, this film had a very orchestral score. It certainly wasn’t bad by any means, yet I missed the heavily Asian style of the last film’s score. But that’s still just a minor nitpick. The real problems come with the story.

This film opens with the prophesy that Lord Shen would be taken down by “a fighter of black and white.” Once again, this makes Po the reluctant subject of a grand destiny to become a legendary fighter. I’ll grant that this storyline wasn’t played up nearly as much as the “Dragon Warrior” plotline of the first film, but this shit is getting old real quick.

Even worse is that the prophesy was made by a soothsaying goat voiced by Michelle Yeoh. The last film had an old turtle who was wise and serene while also serving as a humorous Zen master parody. We also had Shifu, a great teacher who still had to wrestle with his doubts and insecurities. By comparison, this cliche-spewing attempt at a mentor character looks and acts like a cardboard cutout.

There’s also the matter of Master Croc and Master Ox, a pair of kung-fu legends awesomely voiced by JCVD and Dennis Haysbert respectively. These two are a pair of wasted opportunities. Their “fight scene” with Po wasn’t nearly as funny as the filmmakers would like us to think it was and the characters could easily have been cut out of the film entirely with no harm done.

Finally, there’s the ending. Without getting into spoilers, the last thirty seconds are a cliffhanger for Part 3. It certainly isn’t the worst I’ve seen, but it still felt like an undeserved punch in the gut. After everything we learned in this movie and especially after the scene immediately before it, that ending just felt like a cheat.

Still, these failings are more disappointments than dealbreakers. Kung Fu Panda was good, but Kung Fu Panda 2 is marvelous. The script is good, the visuals are phenomenal, the character development is solid and the fight scenes are wonderful. This would make the film good enough on its own, but it looks even better next to the original. If you’ve seen the original film, don’t wait any longer and go see this movie now.

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