Friday, February 10, 2012

Kung Fu Panda 2 Movie Review

Kung Fu Panda 2, the sequel to the hit computer-animated action comedy from DreamWorks Animation, follows the standard rules of sequels. It is bigger in scope, louder, and more boisterous. And it expands the cast list, already overflowing with celebrity voiceovers, to include even more. Part of the fun is trying to identify that voice you recognize but just can’t place. In addition to the stars of the first show, Dennis Haysbert and Jean-Claude Van Damme appear as kung fu masters from another province and Danny McBride is here as a badass wolf.

If you recall the first film, Jack Black voices Po, an overweight panda who was destined to become the Dragon Warrior – the most fearsome kung fu fighter China had ever seen. He was trained by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and fought alongside Tigress (Angelina Jolie), one of the Furious Five (David Cross, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu fill out the posse). All have returned for the second outing which has Po becoming unsettled by his past. He’s having visions of his infancy and has begun to suspect that his dad, Ping the goose (James Hong), might not be his natural father.

Returning screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger provide a pretty good story that convincingly moves this sequel along. This time, Po and the Furious Five must prevent a megalomaniac from gaining rule over all China using newly minted weapons that could spell the end of kung fu as an effective tool against bad guys. Shen the peacock (voiced by Gary Oldman, taking Ian McShane’s place as the stock British-accented baddie), once banished from the kingdom for reasons never really elucidated, returns with his explosive cannons. It seems he has invented gun powder. How can kung fu be a match for that kind of firepower? Po, always the irreverent jokester (as voiced by Jack Black how could he be anything else), laments that he just got kung fu and now it’s about to be rendered useless.

The story borrows a lot from Chinese mysticism, fantasy and fortune telling. Michelle Yeoh voices a soothsayer whose prognostications lead to Greek tragedy level troubles. I like how it incorporates a historical development that forever changed warfare, but someone should tell Po and his friends that kung fu will survive for at least a few more centuries and that it will actually make for a film genre unto itself one day.

In some of the big action set pieces I did feel that director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, a story artist on Kung Fu Panda, cranked up the kinetic energy a little too high. When dealing with animation and not real actors, it’s possible to show your characters doing anything. So I don’t understand why the action sequences are edited precisely to resemble a live action film in which cuts are made to conceal the limitations of the actors. Instead of giving in to Attention Deficit culture, she should have slowed it down to keep our heads from spinning.

But the animation looks spectacular. It’s as good or even better than the first film and the voice characterizations are some of the best I’ve heard in any animated feature film. Kung Fu Panda 2 isn’t quite one for the ages, but it’s rollicking good fun with the occasional smart joke. Best of all is that it comes by the emotional elements honestly – by using an old technique called writing to build characters we care about.

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