Historically, summer has long been the season when film critics moan and groan and gnash their teeth and talk about how there are too many movie sequels and too few original ideas. I'll be honest, though: I think Kung Fu Panda was made for sequels, and I'm quite happy to have the gang back for a second big-screen adventure—even if it is a little light on new ideas.
Because really, so what? The appeal of this movie—and, by the way things are headed, this franchise—has never had much to do with its Idea; unlike, say, Wall*E or even Up, Kung Fu Panda is not high-concept filmmaking. These are movies about animals that do kung fu. They are, essentially, Saturday morning cartoons rendered for the big screen (and, in the second installment, in 3-D). The 2008 original was an appealing blend of goofy comedy, martial arts scenes that mixed Jackie Chan-styled cartoonishness with Charlie Chaplin-esque slapstick, and well-intentioned messages about being yourself and standing up for what's right. It did all these things well, and the sequel is just as good; I'm perfectly content to see all this done for a second time, in a different setting and with a tweaked plot.
The first film never dug any deeper than its Saturday morning cartoon goofiness and expertly-choreographed action sequences, and the sequel doesn't either—and that's a good thing. Frankly, the first chapter really only gave us one interesting character—Po, the title character, voiced by Jack Black. The members of the Furious Five, though well-designed and voiced by some big-name actors, really never got a chance to do much, or to develop into anything beyond cardboard cutouts.
If anything, they are used even less here. There are some vaguely emotional scenes with Angelina Jolie's Tigress that just doesn't resonate like they are clearly meant to because, well, Tigress is just not an interesting character. But this second film gives me a little more enthusiasm for Po's dad, Mr. Ping; the film's most convincing scenes of characterization are its father-son moments.
The first movie was frivolous and flimsy but a lot of fun, and the second does nothing to lessen the appeal of this imaginary world. I'll never care about these characters the way I care about, say, Woody and Buzz, but on the flipside, the sheer zaniness and spirit of whimsy means that I don't worry about the characters being ruined or the impact of the earlier film being tarnished; the worst thing that could happen to this franchise is that it could simply run out of steam, and so far, it hasn't. I'd be glad to watch a third one.
The plot isn't an extension of the first film, but a whole new adventure—a good move for this franchise, which will work well with an episodic nature; taking itself too seriously, or turning into an epic, would be a bad move. Here, Po is still training with the Furious Five and honing his fledgling kung fu skills. Mr. Ping is still running his restaurant, which he has adorned with posters and signs alluding to the fact that his son is the long-prophesied kung fu warrior; part of it is based in a desire to capitalize on his son's newfound celebrity, but it mostly seems to stem from sincere fatherly pride. This sense of warmth, combined with some really funny gags related to his "Dragon Warrior" promotional campaigns, make these scenes some of the best in the film; by contrast, the scenes of Po bonding with the Furious Five are mostly boring, but thankfully brief.
But things don't sit still for long. A prologue shows a much earlier, sinister plot enacted by the villainous peacock Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman), only now coming to fruition. He has been in hiding for years perfecting a weapon that he hopes will signal the death of kung fu and his own ascension to ruler over all of China. The Furious Five are called upon to stop him. Of course. And Po tags along. Of course.
Shen's character is a fairly pedestrian and uninteresting villain, and the plot is formulaic and predictable. But I don't much care about those things. The storyline, while not particularly gripping, serves some utilitarian purposes. It opens up the world of Kung Fu Panda considerably. It allows for some excellent dream sequences—rendered in 2-D, as with the first film—that fill in some of Po's backstory and lead to both some ho-hum moments of self discovery (complete with some vaguely New Age-y philosophizing about finding "inner peace"—more cheesy than concerning) and some effectively heartfelt moments of Po coming to grips with who he is as an adopted child.
But most of all, there's some great action, choreographed to look like what you'd see in a live-action Hong Kong martial arts comedy—like Jackie Chan's movies, with their mix of thrills and slapstick. Some scenes may be just a bit too frightening for sensitive children, but for older kids and their parents they are mightily entertaining; they look great, both in terms of the animation and the choreography, and the changes of scenery in 2 are significant enough to make it all feel fresh and new again.
A closing scene makes it obvious a third movie is in the works. And I say, bring it on.Discussion starters
- Po learns some surprising things about himself and asks big questions about who he is in the world. Do you think the answers he arrives at are satisfying? What do they seem to suggest about family, and about adoption in particular?
- Po says it's important to choose the kind of person you're going to be. What does the Bible say about choice, and about the extent to which we as people are able to determine who we are to be?
- What is this movie's view toward destiny and fate, and how does that compare to a biblical worldview?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Kung Fu Panda 2 is rated PG for martial arts action and some mild violence. It's very much along the lines of the first film, or any other action-oriented cartoon. It may be a bit much for very young or sensitive children, but older kids should have no problem. There is some vaguely mystic kung fu mumbo-jumbo—stuff about "finding inner peace" and the like—though this element is, if anything, less prevalent here than in the first movie. There is also some dialogue discussing adoption in a frank and emotionally heavy way.
Photos © Dreamworks
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