Thursday, June 30, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2: The Panda Strikes Back

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

As I mentioned yesterday, when we saw X-Men: First Class it was immediately prepended by Kung Fu Panda 2. And while the X-Men flick was a mixed bag of candy and turd-nuggets where the latter inevitably prevails over the former, Kung Fu Panda 2 was an enjoyable sequel that built on and matured the subject matter of the first while still keeping it completely kid-friendly.

Expectations 'Odor': I really loved Kung Fu Panda. While a certain other studio is dinking around not making an The Incredibles sequel, Kung Fu Panda was the sort of light-hearted, good-natured action fare that alluded to the thrills I got from The Incredibles. It had humor that was accessible for kids, but not repulsively low-brow, and the character was probably one of the most lovable cuddly characters from an actor who specializes in lovable-buffoon-type-casting.

When I first heard about Kung Fu Panda 2, it was supposed to be subtitled 'The Kaboom of Doom'. Something about the outrageous silliness of that title grabbed me in a giggling kid sort of way, and I referred to it as such right up until it was formally released without the awesome title. But I still had the associations of silliness in my mind, and I went in expecting some more epic humor, including people going blind from awesomeness. Which, as we all know, is free.

Appreciation 'Beef': My expectations of Kung Fu Panda 2 were a little too silly to be accurate. While still a kid's movie, it felt that much darker than the first--more scenes occurred at night and in the rain or in dungeons, which I'm sure presented a challenge to the animators as they had to maintain cartoon light-heartedness and cute elements while casting them in dark, harsh lighting conditions. They did well, and I think the animation's general scope and direction is what really surprised me.

The movie employed three distinct animation types. The primary medium was the CG imagery that tells the vast majority of the story. The prologue was told in a 3d shadow puppet play that was both evocative of the darker mood to the movie and culturally apropos. And the movie's several flashbacks were told through a more traditional-looking cross between painted story book and cell animation. Both of the two new animation styles are pitch perfect for their uses, and so beautifully rendered you feel like they could be used to tell a standalone story just as well.

And the traditional 3d animation has been turned up a notch, too. The character models for a computer generated movie can be reused precisely as a matter of fact, so it is no surprise that they look as kinetic and cuddly in this movie as they did in the first. The interactions with the different lighting types, however, takes the film to another, much more engrossing level.

The plot itself is much more dense, and we see some more legitimate character growth in Po this time around. Without giving anything away, the central theme of the film is about overcoming trauma. It's a bit of a heady concept to get across to kids, and they are careful to depict the trauma in a way that is scary but not unduly violent, but it still means that Kung Fu Panda 2 feels geared towards kids at the middle to high end of the PG spectrum.

The voice acting is good, and a lot more of the supporting characters seem to get a chance to shine in this movie. But the standout character is the villain, Shen, who is voiced by the acting-double-jointed Gary Oldman. Hearing the villain cackle and shout orders at his minions, threaten the good guys, and generally play the evil overlord to the tenth degree is almost distractingly entertaining.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': I loved Kung Fu Panda 2 even more than the initial installment. The action is much more frenetically paced, with choreography that twists the camera into odd angles and embodies the stress of the much larger-scale combat that takes place in the movie. The teamwork element is dialed up too, outdoing anything I can think of short of the climax of The Incredibles. Characters throw each other around, catch them when they fall, and generally show that they've been training together since Po became the Dragon Warrior.

This rich density is reflected in the humor of the film, too. I often found myself laughing at something a character said when an unrelated sight gag also passed by, giving an additional snort of appreciation. More than most ninety minute films, I felt this one went by much too quickly.

Probably the biggest reservation I had about the movie is the central plot's moral, which reminded me of The Last Samurai. The villain, Shen, has created the cannon, which will 'destroy kung fu' and hence the protagonists are tasked with destroying the machine and stopping the genocidal peacock. The idea of destroying the advent of firearms is problematic, though, when you consider that the villain of the first movie used his Kung Fu superiority to wipe out all opposition except for a prophesied champion. A simple firing line of muskets could have ended Tai Lung's reign of terror. There's a reason why we call firearms things like the 'equalizer'--it circumvents much of the unfair advantages of savage tyrants. You could imagine one kung fu master defeating one hundred at once, but one gunslinger doing the same is pretty much unimaginable. The fact is, the glorification of kung fu (or the samurai order in the Tom Cruise movie) over firearms is more about elitism than anything else: a farmer with a musket can kill a full time martial arts master, which is the really galling thing about the concept to characters in both movies. Overall, though, this caveat hardly affected my overall enjoyment of the film, largely because the kung fu vs. firearms theme pales in importance to the theme of overcoming personal trauma.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': Kung Fu Panda 2 has virtually all the same elements that made Kung Fu Panda a success, but uses them in different proportions. The humor is more dense and operates on two layers. The villain is a lot more hate-filled and active in the plot. Po is not just an innocent dreamer but an immature guardian who still has to fully embrace who he is. These all say that if you enjoy the first movie, you'll enjoy the second, but you do still need to brace yourself for a very different tone.

The shift in focus is also enough in my opinion to make others who didn't appreciate Kung Fu Panda give Kung Fu Panda 2 a chance. There's more of a dynamic plot that moves across the landscape, involves more characters, and requires more personal growth. Po is significantly more mature in this film, though he still has room for more development. And the fight scenes contain stunning choreography that will probably inform CG and maybe even live-action movies to come.

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