Dreamworks Animation started off on the right foot. Though the general public has already forgotten it, I thought Antz pretty resoundingly won its face-off with A Bug’s Life back in 1998. And considering that the mediocre A Bug’s Life was only Pixar’s second film, it was not yet clear what an unwavering juggernaut of face-melting quality they were going to prove to be in the ensuing decade. In 1998, it was fair to assume we might be in store for an epic creative CG-animated rivalry.
Then Shrek happened.
I wouldn’t call Shrek “bad.” I just really, really didn’t like it. Its attitude bothered me — what became the “Dreamworks attitude,” which pandered in unclever meta pop cultural gags, while completely phoning in the animation (both in design and character execution). Yet for a while there some critics loved acting like the two-horse race was continuing, saying that Dreamworks was the Looney Tunes to Pixar’s classic Disney. Sure, yeah, if there simply must be a direct parallel made, I guess that would be the most accurate. But that’s doing a pretty huge disservice to all parties involved except Dreamworks. It’s really a bit insulting to Looney Tunes, whose animation style and technique was every bit as amazing as Disney’s shorts; frankly, Looney Tunes’ actual character animation was generally more inventive.
A full decade after Antz, at the outset of 2008, I still would’ve said that Dreamworks had yet to make another good CG animated movie since their Woody Allen ant debut. Ten years is a long time to suck – Shark’s Tale, Bee Movie, Madagascar – so I don’t think I was being pessimistic by completely giving up on House Katzenberg. Then Kung Fu Panda happened. The degree to which Kung Fu Panda surprised me was pretty extreme. People who don’t care about animation as an art form and storytelling technique (and there is certainly nothing wrong with not caring about that) generally have no idea what I’m talking about when I draw such a sharp line between Kung Fu Panda and something like Madagascar. But in Panda Dreamworks seemed to have finally gotten themselves inspired direction, design, character animation, and most importantly, a new attitude. It didn’t feel like Pixar, but it didn’t feel like Dreamworks either. I had to wonder: had the company turned down a new path? Or was this an anomaly? With last year’s triumphant How To Train Your Dragon and now Kung Fu Panda 2, I think it’s safe to say Dreamworks may be experiencing a creative rebirth. They still don’t have a focused voice (whazzup, Megamind?), but I no longer dismiss a Dreamworks film the moment it is announced. In fact, Kung Fu Panda 2 marks the first film since Shrek that I went in to assuming it would be good. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Last we left Po (voiced by Jack Black), he had successfully fulfilled his destiny and become the Dragon Warrior. Now, as we return to the Valley of Peace, Po is the de facto leader of the Furious Five – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) – who keep the innocent safe, under the tutelage of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). But a new threat is rising. Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a high-bred peacock, has created a new unstoppable weapon, which he plans to use to obliterate kung fu and dominate the world. Tied into this hero quest, Po must also grapple with the truth about his own past — namely, how did a giant panda became the son of a goose?
First things first. Kung Fu Panda 2 is not as strong as the original. It never quite matches the first film’s story heights, nor adds substantial new experiences to the series, but it is still an entirely enjoyable film. As far as animated sequels are concerned, it is a winning success. Simply put — fans of the original film will find plenty to like. Especially the younger lot.
I don’t know if I’ve ever turned as hard on an actor as I have with Jack Black. Goddamn, I used to love the guy. I was a Tenacious D fan back in the 90’s when it was simply a gonzo HBO series starring some fat guy who did guest spots on Mr. Show and an even fatter guy I’d never seen before. I was overjoyed when the rest of the world caught up with me after High Fidelity. Then something happened. I OD’d on Jack Black. Now I’m sick of him. I didn’t even like him in Tropic Thunder, which seemed to have the rest of the Black-haters temporarily pacified. But even to a hater like me, Black is undeniably outstanding as Po. Personality-wise, it was a part he was born to play. And his excess of energy that aggravates me now in his live-action roles and appearances is perfect for animation. In fact, he makes most of the other actors seem deficient in comparison.
Another reason I’ve always found Dreamworks Animation second-rate is because they cast their films based on star-wattage, completely ignoring the realities of voice acting (who wants to hear Brad Pitt?). But voice acting is very different from regular acting, and with people like Angelina Jolie and David Cross it is noticeable that they don’t posses the right temper/skill to convey the same spark they have in live-action, when all we’re getting is their voice. Jack Black has that skill in spades. As does Seth Rogen (which is probably why Mantis gets more screen time here). I was a little worried Gary Oldman wouldn’t have it. Ian McShane lit up the screen in the first film, as the villainous Tai Lung, proving that he doesn’t need that amazingly intense face of his to impart his menace and charm. Just the way he said the line, “He’s a panda. You’re a panda!” was fantastic. But Oldman does a stellar job with Lord Shen. As did the character designers. Lord Shen looks awesome. See…
It may seem minor or insignificant on the surface, but Lord Shen shows that the Kung Fu Panda 2 team – first time feature director Jennifer Yuh, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger, and the assload of other people who surely played a part – understands the basic ingredients needed for crafting a satisfying sequel. Tai Lung was burly and badass. “Bigger” is often the mindset people apply to sequels, but giving us a bigger and tougher villain would have been boring and obvious. I like getting a scrawny bird. Even just the voice casting – McShane to Oldman – is a major shift in kind of villain we’re dealing with. Tai Lung was mean and intimidating, but you could respect him on some level; he was a kung fu master after all. Lord Shen is just a shit, who uses technology to win his battles (which is definitely cheating in the world of martial arts cinema). From a design point we’ve taken a fun shift too, and not just in the size department. Tai Lung had a monochrome gray-blue color scheme (he was a snow leopard), and as you can see Lord Shen has a very dramatic look. But I’d wager most people don’t give a shit about such things, so let’s talk about “the movie.”
The story isn’t as strong this time around, because it lacks the clarity of purpose the first film had. Po dreamed of being a kung fu warrior, and at the end he became one. It is hard to top origin stories, especially origin stories that involve the hero ascending to the apex of something (ie, becoming the Dragon Warrior; top dog in this universe). This time, Po has a special move we know he’ll need to master in order to win at the end, but that is a completely perfunctory element in the story. The meat here involves Po’s attempts to learn the secrets of his birth. As a general rule, it drives me nuts when movie franchises do any retconning, unless it is to correct a terrible plothole or something. But there is a fun moment in the original Kung Fu Panda when you think Po’s goose father, Mr. Ping (the incomparable James Hong), is going to reveal that Po is adopted, but it proves to be a fake-out gag in which Mr. Ping reveals the secret to his noodle recipe instead. So you walk out of the film wondering — how did a goose become the father of a panda? Inter-species uglies-bumpin’ seemed unlikely as Po isn’t half goose. This left the door wide open for Kung Fu Panda 2 to ignore or explore the question, and they chose to explore it. This gives the two films a nice sense of connection even though a sequel was never initially planned for Po.
The subplot regarding Po’s birth works very well (and concludes with a major set-up for Kung Fu Panda 3), as does the A-plot involving defeating Lord Shen. Where Kung Fu Panda 2 fails is with its side characters. The weakest aspect of the original film was the Furious Five. There were too many characters there, and not enough time to do much with them on an individual level (not to mention some clunky choices in the voice acting department). This is the exact area that can be expanded upon to great effect in a sequel. Yet if anything, the Furious Five feel even more superfluous in 2 than they did previously. Jolie and Rogen’s characters are the only ones who have any kind of presence — the other three probably share about 15 lines of dialogue collectively. Compounding this is the addition of two new characters, Master Cros (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Master Storming Ox (Dennis Haysbert). Haysbert gets a little play, but Van Damme is barely used at all, making his presence purely stunt casting; which isn’t that interesting in an animated film. This number of characters would be perfect for a Kung Fu Panda animated TV program, where side characters can get fleshed out slowly over a whole season, but in a 95-minute feature length film it just feels cluttered. Especially when our six heroes are off on an adventure, and not just farting around at home.
Part of what made the first film so much fun was the execution of all the martial arts action (like Tai Lung’s killer prison escape), and that carries over here despite the fact that we’ve switched directors. As with all the other elements, the kung fu battles aren’t quite as excellent as they were in the first film, but there is still a lot of entertaining and inventive action — in particular the final battle, which once again climaxes with a “skadoosh.” Conversely, the cute factor also gets turned up to 11 here, with plenty of flashbacks featuring a gluttonous, roly-poly infant Po. And the scenes with Po and Mr. Ping will certainly put tears in some people’s eyes. I have to imagine Po is going to become an inspirational icon to a whole generation of adopted children after this (I really can’t imagine that is a spoiler; if you actually thought Mr. Ping had sex with a panda, and had wickedly recessive genes, then I apologize). The movie is cute, funny, heart-warming and full of plenty of cartoon kicking and punching. The 3D is great (why do they even bother with live-action 3D?). Nothing brilliant, but well worth the attendance for parents with kiddies, and those who dig a fun animated romp. Like me!
Out of a Possible 5 Stars