Kung Fu Panda 2
Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, James Hong, Michelle Yeoh
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How do you qualify the success of a sequel? Is it whether the film matches or outperforms the original at the box office? Is it an improvement of artistic merit? Or is it taking the sequel in a slightly new direction and succeeding? Kung Fu Panda 2 may be the first animated sequel to answer each of those questions in the minds of each viewer.
Not long after Po (voiced by Jack Black) became the Dragon Warrior and, with the assistance of the Furious Five, saved the kingdom from the escaped snow leopard Tai Lung, the portly panda wears his fame on his sleeve. Never letting those around him forget who is the most powerful kung fu warrior alive. His father has even begun using his son's fame as a selling tool for his own noodle shop. Yet, when a new force threatens the Valley of Peace, Po joins forces with Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross) to wrest control from the mad, white peacock Shen (Gary Oldman). Also back to serve up advice and set Po on his journey is Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a diminutive Grand Master struggling to find in himself inner peace.
Simple as the plot may sound, a challenging execution lays before Jennifer Yuh, a first-time big screen director who has worked in storyboarding and artistic design on film since 1994. Yuh takes the screenplay by Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger and their team of writers and gives turns it into a gorgeous, poetic vision of ancient China with rich symbolism, gorgeous scenery and a magnificent series of flashbacks, including the opening sequence, employing various colorful gears to tell the story of Shen's origin. Having received a prophecy that he will be defeated by a creature of black and white, Shen begins a campaign to slaughter every panda alive in an effort to stave off his demise. His treachery and violence lead his loving and peaceful parents to exile him. Adding immeasurably to the magnificent visuals of the opening Michelle Yeoh's wonderful narration adds an beautiful layer of depth.
We know from the first film that Po's father Mr. Ping (Jame Hong) is not his natural father. A goose having a panda cub child? But the film didn't go into great depth about Po's origin leaving a terrific opening for the sequel. In order to find the inner peace he will need in order to defeat Shen, Po must calm the storms in his heart and uncover the truth about his parents and how he came to be the adoptive son of a goose. The flashback scenes peppered throughout the present tense action colorfully unveil his history, revealing a stark and tragic history that allows the audience to form an emotional connection with Po that they may not have had in the original film.
The voice work has changed little since the original film, but adding in Oldman's machinations as the voice of Shen was a stroke of genius. For several years, Oldman has softened his image, giving the audience a glimpse of the more compassionate side of his craft. With roles in the Harry Potter films as Harry's compassionate father and in the Batman films as the kindly Lieutenant Gordon, I had become concerned that we might forever lose the richness of character he could bring to a villainous role. Kung Fu Panda revives my faith in him as an actor. Shen is a cold-hearted villain like few others, but his vocal talents lend an air of menace the film might not have had with a lesser actor in the role. His voice work makes this one of his finest performances in years.
Not since Toy Story 2 has there been an animated sequel that has improved upon the original. Tonally, Kung Fu Panda 2 is quite a bit darker than its comedy-laden first feature, but that's to the benefit of the film. While it has many light moments that give the audience occasion to smile, adding too much levity to a story of such gravity would have been dangerous. They have created the perfect balance. It might not be the joyous production a lot of kids will enjoy, this film will appeal mostly to the adults whose support has frequently made Pixar the envy of the animation industry. While I doubt that Pixar can easily be supplanted as the best animation house in film history, DreamWorks is making the case that it isn't some fly-by-night, box office-at-all-costs studio like rival Fox.
With the Panda films and How to Train Your Dragon, I'm no longer afraid to sit down to a DreamWorks animated feature expecting to be annoyed by how childish it is, because I'm no longer likely to be so disappointed.
June 30, 2011