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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

“Kung Fu Panda 2″ review

Rating: A-
The original “Kung Fu Panda” film single-handedly proved that Dreamworks Studios wasn’t about to coast solely on its already-established “Shrek” franchise. It came as a huge and positive surprise for me, as I honestly thought Dreamworks was a one-trick pony that wouldn’t take some risks and put genuine effort in experimenting with new formulas. “Kung Fu Panda” proved me wrong – and managed to become one of my favorite non-Pixar children films.

Now with the successful film’s sequel, “Kung Fu Panda 2” succeeds on the same level of wowing battle sequences and chaotic moments of hilarity as the first film, while also pulling off what only great sequels do – upping the ante, creating personal stakes for the heroes, answering questions, and making us care even more for the characters we already know. There isn’t any single element that doesn’t fully add to the original. The fun and charm of the original is assuredly not lost, while the action and the overall scope is way bigger than one would expect a children’s film to hold. This is the perfect sequel.
“Kung Fu Panda 2” begins with a stylized opening (similar to that of the first film) taking us into flashback-mode regarding our villain, the manic white peacock kung fu master known as Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). Shen is driven to obsession because of a yak Soothsayer’s (Michelle Yeoh) dark premonition, which destines that Shen will be defeated by a powerful warrior of black and white (which he takes as the panda species). Due to this, Shen tries destroying all pandas in order to deny this prophesy. But as we know, he must have missed one..

Once the flashback ends, the story occurs quite some time after the final events of the first film. Po (Jack Black) is now a successful, yet still characteristically funny and lovable, kung fu master who is without equal in his fighting ability – although he has yet to master the subtle and seemingly impossible art of inner peace. With Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and the Furious Five – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Crane (David Cross) – directly at his side, Po and his group remain one of the strongest powers for good in China and the Valley of Peace. But their peaceful existence is threatened when Lord Shen appears in their realm with a huge army of evil wolf warriors and – with the use of a new powerful weapon – takes out three of the greatest living kung fu legends. When Master Shifu describes Shen’s weapon as having the ability to cancel out and eventually wipe out kung fu, Po and the Furious Five head out on an epic quest to take out Shen and his army of warriors before Shen succeeds in taking over China. Yet Po has no way of knowing that Lord Shen is more directly associated with his past than he could possibly imagine and holds the answers as to what happened to Po’s real parents.
Where the first film was (in its own words) ‘awesome,’ the sequel is appropriately epic. The first thing I must say is how much I respect Dreamworks for taking the Christopher Nolan route of waiting for the right idea rather than, in the name of cashing in, rushing into production regardless of quality. This effort shows just enough time was put into it to make as flawless a sequel as possible.
The main reason I like this so much is how all my main complaints for the first film are dealt with and upgraded – from the lack of epic all-out battles like the opening sequence suggested to Angelina Jolie’s stoic vocal performance.

While watching the first film, even though I loved the sense of action and kung fu, I kept hoping that Tsai Lung would get an undead panther army or something and attack Poe and the Furious Five. I wanted bigger fight scenes. Instead, the whole film was based on Po’s individual growth and how he, Master Shifu, and the Furious Five kept trying to stop Tsai Lung. No kung fu battles with massive uncontrollable hordes. Just one guy. Yet the sequel lets our heroes have chaotic battles with a bunch of hordes – and the battles are beautiful and lovingly destructive. Each character is given the perfect amount of time to show their fighting chops during these action scenes, where the kung fu swiftness and style easily hearkens to Jackie Chan films from the 90′s.
For films like these, critiquing vocal performance is rather pointless – as A-list actors are usually hired and there is rarely word for complaint. But sometimes the vocal work is so good that it must be commented on. Pixar has whole reviews dedicated to the soulful vocalizations of its many characters. Yet Dreamworks has always just been okay. Nothing wrong, yet nothing that stands out. Yet here, there are several very good vocal performances – Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman, and James Hong. Jolie has some real life to her role now, and Black shows some dramatic chops that we don’t usually see. Hong, as Po’s goose father, continues to bring an emotion core that stamps the whole film.

Where the villain is concerned, Lord Shen is just as menacing and powerful as Tsai Lung was, yet his level of evilness is quite different. Where Tsai Lung actually believed himself to be the hero of his own story (hence his golden eyes) and thus carried a righteous hatred against the main characters, Lord Shen knows that he’s the villain. Driven by a bottomless ambition for power in order to bury his feelings of loneliness and heartbreak, Shen makes up in barbaric ruthlessness what Tsai Lung had in raw power. Shen is definitely a worthy successor to Tsai Lung considering how Gary Oldman as Lord Shen is just as vocally intimidating as Ian McShane. They’re both incredibly cool.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” is better than most sequels on several levels. Many sequels, while they usually succeed at upping the action and the scale of damage that may be inflicted, just don’t have enough time to add characterization or emotion. This sequel, on the other hand, does it all.
What I like so much about “Kung Fu Panda 2” is how it finds an untapped element utterly unexplored in the first film and can take the characters we already know so well into new realms of imagination. This isn’t just an action flick put to a recognizable brand – this is a story that makes sense for the characters and their growth. While every one of the Five gets more of a chance to be individualized more, the two main characters where we see a new or different side to them are Po and Tigress. With them, we actually get some real quiet and contemplating moments. We get to know the characters already established and learn more about them. In this way, the film is most easily comparable to “Shrek 2” and “Toy Story 2” in being capable of getting us to care even more about these characters than we already do.

But in the end, the film knows its focus: Po. The charm of Po seems to be based on how he’s like all of us. He wants to be great. Yet before the first film, his passionate ambition was undermined by his mediocrity in talent. This time, Po takes this a step further – finding inner peace and forgiveness amid learning the horrible truth about his past. This struggle, in its own way, defines him more as a character.
Ultimately, “Kung Fu Panda 2” is charming, witty, and the most satisfying sequel we could have expected considering how great the original Panda was. If Dreamworks is looking for Po and Co. to take over the noticeable gap that the Shrek franchise left behind, we might actually be looking at a worthy – and possibly even better – successor.

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