“Kung Fu Panda 2” is far from a failure in what it sets out to do; the problem with that being that it’s not trying to do anything particularly exciting. It goes through all the paces that a film of its sort is expected to do, fitting damn-near perfectly into the supposed ‘plot-triangle’ with all the requisite motions (rising action, climax, et cetera…). Where action is required, action takes place. Where displays of emotion are required, they are “emoted”. When it behooves the director [first-timer Jennifer Nelson] to drop comic relief, she executes it with impeccable efficiency. And this is really how “Kung Fu Panda 2” left me cold.
It’s TOO efficient, too workmanlike. It’s TOO neatly constructed. It’s a creation that feels thoroughly constructed top-to-bottom, frame-to-frame, kick-to-face.
It’s the second in a franchise with humbler beginnings than most studio fare. The original was a surprise in all regards, or at least the ones that matter most (financially & critically). What other film could squeeze Jack Black & Dustin Hoffman into the same frame? The film, set in ancient China, was essentially about a lot of furry animals running around and doing kung fu on each other, the main character being the underdog wanna-be panda, Po. But given the dramatic gravitas and weight it was handled with though, it was convincing, entertaining, even uplifting.
Po’s back for “2”, as is his back-up squad, “The Furious Five”, a colorfully animated and celebrity-voice-populated clan. Voices include Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, and Jackie Chan. Characters with more than five lines of dialogue include none. The objective of the group this time around? To destroy an evil leader, who is developing a weapon that threatens the future and relevance of kung-fu itself. (I was excited to see what creative ‘weapon’ the filmmakers would come up with, only to find that its a simple cannon.)
Along the way, Po experiences flashbacks to a childhood in which his parents abandoned him. A sub-plot is about him harnessing these painful memories to find “inner peace”. Read above comments on arbitrariness of emotion in this film.
The film is superbly animated, as I’ve come to expect from animation-house DreamWorks. The gorgeous, often fantastical landscapes of China are vividly captured. It’s the combination of these and the combat sequences that really engaged me, most of the time. And what combat!
One element where they totally stepped up their game is indeed, the action in the film. It feels like the kind of large-scale badassery that live-action CGI, for all of its tricks and tools, can’t quite conjure. It’s certainly where the creative juice of the film was mostly used up. A sequence where the protagonists, propelling themselves by throwing the others upward, dart up a collapsing tower is brilliant. It’s these sequences that, should the series continue its current downward trajectory, will keep me coming back for more. C+