Friday, May 27, 2011

Film Review: "Kung Fu Panda 2" (***)

Last year was a booming year for animation, so this year has been more than a bit of a disappointment. Rio is the only animated venture I've even considered attending this year, but ultimately opted out of it. Seems more than a little too irritating for my tastes. Pixar is setting themselves up for another moderate dip with Cars 2, so we leave it to Dreamworks Animation to redeem this Summer. The tricky thing with Kung Fu Panda 2 is the expectations of this sequel, especially after the first film kicked off a trend of quality within the less than stunning animation company.

The film picks up some time after its predecessor, just as albino peacock Lord Shen returns to China in order to proclaim his rule over the world. As per usual, Po and the Furious Five head to Gongmen City to defeat him. Whilst this is all going on, Po begins seeing visions of his real family, and is reinvigorated in his hunt for Shen by his search for answers. Despite all their Kung Fu abilities, the group is rendered powerless against Shen's latest masterpiece of destruction: a unique fusion of cannon and fireworks.

The first film dealt with some rather standard themes in kids films, with Po transforming himself from a simple juvenile panda into one of the greatest kung fu masters in history. This second film's plot isn't as openly inspiring, and it works on several different emotional levels. The main theme it deals with is identity, and who we make ourselves to be as opposed to who we were born to be, and how those sometimes work in harmony. Po's discovery of his past is played a little too dumb, because Po would have conceivably figured things out sooner. It didn't make things any less heart-wrenching when Po finally remembers how he lost his parents.

The previous film used 2D animated segments for merely the opening, but the sequel uses them far too excessively. The 2D is perhaps appropriate for some of the flashbacks, but the opening history of Shen would have been much more effective if fully animated in CG. There's very little about the plot that I have qualms with. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the plot is perfect for an animated film of this type. The script, on the other hand, could have used another touch up or two. There are scenes that play on longer than they should, like the Gongmen Jail scene, and the one-on-ones between Po and Mr. Ping.

Things don't seem to flow as well as they should, and I imagine that a little more work on the script, as well as better direction, could've gone a long way to making this film brilliant. By that, I mean rivaling some of Pixar's best. All the pieces are there, and they just needed more attention to reach perfection. Now that I've dished out all the punishment I have, I can get to what I loved about this film. What makes the film impossible to hate is the exciting action sequences. There are too many such action scenes, I'll give the criticizers that. They are still a feat of spectacular ingenuity and craftsmanship.

The film manages to paint a bit of the clashing of the cultures, with Shen specializing in Japanese fighting techniques in his quest for power. The film also mixes the two styles seamlessly, and the action set pieces are comparable to the level of Kill Bill Vol. 1. Particular staples of the film are the fight in the musician's village, the chase across Gongmen city, and the final action climax. Cinematography is usually a non-factor in animated films, but there are shots in this films that are filled with such lush and dangerous beauty. In the last film, Tai Lung was characterized by the color blue. Lord Shen is similarly characterized by the color red. Both achieve a harsh tone of menace.

Speaking of menace, Gary Oldman is pitch perfect as the voice of the feathered villain. His voice is filled with such anger and maniacal charm, and he is a standout in this film. His voice is the only one worth mentioning, but the characters are used pretty well. While Crane and Monkey are reduced to mere background characters, Mantis proves to be the dark comic relief of the bunch. Tigress and Po have a wonderful friendship going on in this film, and the writers did have enough sense not to just slam them together as a romantic pair. In the first film, Tigress really hated Po. In this one, they're equals and friends. Shifu shows up very little in the film, and that absence raises his character to legendary status. Whenever he's on screen, it is a momentous occasion. Hans Zimmer and John Powell work well together once again, turning in a score that raises the events onscreen to their maximum emotional potential. Kung Fu Panda 2 may be something of a shadow of what it could have been, but it still serves as symbol of wonderfully done technical storytelling with a heart.

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