Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Fists Of Furry: Kung Fu Panda 2 review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Dir: Jennifer Yuh
Stars: Jack Black, Gary Oldman, Angelina Jolie, Michelle Yeoh, Dustin Hoffman
Running Time: 90mins

And to think I had the 'Chop-Sucky' headline all lined up. Sequels to movies I unexpectedly enjoyed rarely turn out as well, but Kung-Fu Panda 2 bucks that trend with big, snuggly aplomb. The original was far from perfect, but drew big laughs from its endearing lead character and harboured tangible affection for the kung-fu 'Shaw Brothers' movies it was spoofing. Given the diminishing returns of the Shrek series after the very funny first, I won't pretend that the prospect of more Kung-Fu Panda filled me with joy.

Happily, those fears went unfounded. Panda 2 takes everything fun from the original and adds to it without succumbing to the 'bigger is better' philosophy which has cost many sequels their souls. Environments are expansive and beautiful, a perfect blend of realism with the movies' signature art style; the characters are respected; the gags are silly but well-constructed and conveyed through joyously bouncy animation, and though nowhere near as thematically ambitious as the Pixar movies which lead the field in CG cartoons, its message is delivered with sincerity and offers entertainment pure enough for adults and children to enjoy, with zero ham-fisted pop culture references.
Having sat through two blockbuster sequels this summer (Hangover Part II and Pirates 4) content to replicate their forebears rather than try anything new, a big sigh of relief came at how Panda 2 develops the events and themes of the first movie, rather than denying or repeating them. Po is as meek and bumbling as ever, but still a fearsome martial artist befitting his newly-acquired title of Dragon Warrior once the fighting starts.

His style is perfectly suited to the limitations of the character, who as we are frequently reminded, is large and round and furry, rather than the toned fighting machines normally associated with the image of kung-fu masters. ("Hard style isn't really your thing," Tigress reminds him). He bounces around battlefields like a furball of destruction, allowing the animators to have a lot of fun with the propulsive dynamics of his movement, the sound editors to throw in a lot of amusing noises as enemies rebound from his stomach, and the choreographers to build some exciting and ambitious fight sequences around the different styles of him and his warrior friends, the Furious Five.

Whether in action, comedy or just moving the story along, the animation is distinctive and fun to watch in a way which few CG cartoons manage. A panda is pretty much a sure-fire hit in the adorable stakes and you can tell how much fun the filmmakers are having contorting his rotund form into ever sillier poses and coaxing out increasingly ridiculous expressions. (The 'play dead' face is a winner, while a sequence where the gang run through city streets in disguise as a festival caterpillar brings a smorgasbord of visual comedy). Its glee recalls the glory days of The Simpsons, in which much pleasure was derived from watching Homer's body and face react to his surroundings. It's not up to that exalted standard, and despite the great successes of both Panda movies, I still don't believe CG animation will ever be as charming as hand-drawn styles, but Po is a wonderful character to just watch. He's highly expressive and just exaggerated enough to be funny rather than annoying.

Having Po be so visually delightful makes us more invested in his story, which is where Panda 2 is at its bravest. There's always going to be debate about what is or isn't suitable for children, from the death of Bambi's mother to the monsters in Doctor Who, and this movie deals with some very dark material. Fortunately, it is handled with a great deal of grace, allowing the impact of what is depicted to be felt without slipping into exploitation. Everything is justified by the story and the main character's emotional arc, rather than being scary or unpleasant for the sake of it, as it could be argued the Potters sometimes are.

I wasn't initially delighted at Po the panda's relationship with his 'father' Ping the goose being explained, as it was one of the little slices of silliness which made the original so endearing. It's done well though, in particular the idea that while the fact that Po being adopted is obvious to everyone else, he never bothered to question it because of the strength of his affection for Ping. From the first movie onwards, Po has been a very family-oriented character, with the bonds with those he loves and admires being of upmost importance to him.

I particularly like how close he and Tigress have become since her initial dismissal of him - they've helped each other grow into better people, so it makes sense that they should now have the strongest affection for each other in the group of 'Furious' fighters. He's shy and absurd, but also an idealist who would like to have a paw in building a world where everyone can live together without worry or fear, especially if it means delivering an occasional 'skidoosh' along the way.

The subplot about Po trying to remember what happened to his parents, and whether or not they abandoned him, thus resonates honestly with the character. As the story develops of how Ping came to find the baby Po (yes, there's plenty of baby panda silliness here) in a turnip basket behind his restaurant, it is affecting because we know how much the character has invested in it. I certainly didn't expect to be as moved as I was by a movie called Kung Fu Panda 2: The Kaboom of Doom, but the writers and filmmakers play every card to maximum effect. The traditionally animated scenes, when Po remembers his past, are particularly strong, especially in handling one scene which, though the crucial action occurs off-screen, would have been too sinister to represent in the semi-realistic CGI style. In hand-drawn form, it is every bit as wrenching, but kept at just enough of a distance to not be unpleasant.

Credit also to Jack Black, who does superb voice work in the lead role. The Panda movies are the only things I've liked him in, but he hits exactly the right balance between heartfelt pathos and excitable energy. The other characters I can take or leave, and still wonder why actors like Jackie Chan and Seth Rogen were needed for parts which only have a handful of lines (marketing opportunities, I suppose), but in a way it's a relief that they feel so bland, because Po is rightly at the centre of everything and Black makes him a character worth following. 

Of the newcomers, Gary Oldman injects a great deal of personality into villlainous peacock Shen, who is otherwise a little one-note despite his story loosely mirroring Po's. Michelle Yeoh puts far too much angst into the opening voiceover, but her work as a soothsayer goat (with a habit of nibbling on Shen's cloak) is otherwise strong. Personally I prefer Pixar's strategies of using lesser-known actors, as familiar voices can be distracting, but this is as well-used as a celebrity cast has ever been in an animated movie.

I won't pretend that the movie is in any way flawless: a lot of the second half takes place in rather dark environments which are less appealing than the bold colours elsewhere; the 'inner peace' aspect of the story was more like an XBox Live achievement than worthwhile step on Po's path to enlightenment, and the sequel set-up ending concluded the movie on a bum note which felt like it partially invalidated how Po had gained a better understanding of his place in the world. But for those quibbles, Kung-Fu Panda 2 is funny, moving and an ideal transition piece for younger viewers to move onto the Shaw Brothers wushu movies which inspired it and are paid affectionate homage. Its methods may not be conventional, but awesomeness has been achieved. [ 8 ]


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