Just a Po Boy from a Po Family, by Matt Warren
I like to imagine that when picture was locked and the last grain of CGI rice was fully rendered, the makers of 2008’s Kung Fu Panda emitted a long, self-satisfied sigh, pushed their chairs away from their computer terminals, and declared “good enough!” And it was. Full of arresting visuals and exciting action, KFuP1 was much better than it needed to be, and much, MUCH better than anyone expected from the frequently lackluster DreamWorks Animation. And last year, D-Works continued to rehab its rep among animation fans with How to Train Your Dragon, an even better film that, at its best, rivaled anything coming out of Emeryville. Yes, things were certainly looking up for our scrappy young upstarts. But would KFuP2 be a step forward, or a big step back?
Fun though it was, the original Kung Fu Panda was at its core a deeply cynical, gimmicky film, the entire story seemingly reverse-engineered from the title, itself no doubt the product of months and months of Viacom R&D. Somewhere deep inside a volcano on a desert island, there’s a secret lair housing an enormous supercomputer whose only function is to auto-generate different irreverent martial arts/animal pairings in an attempt to identify the silliest possible premise for an animated kids’ movie. The film could’ve been Muay-Thai Manatee or Hippo Jujitsu, but no. It was Kung Fu Panda.
KFuP2 picks up with titular everybear Po (aka “The Dragon Warrior”) now an accepted part of the fighting consortium known as the “Furious Five”—Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). They’re the protectors of what KFu2’s Wikipedia page tells me is “The Valley of Peace,” fending off a variety of anthropomorphic marauders, raiders, and rogues. Life is good, save for some light hand wringing over whatever became of Po’s birth parents.
Like some kind of ursine idiot savant, Po continues to be totally bumbling and inept when required to do any sort of physical activity other than punch bad guys in the face. The poor guy can’t even slurp up a single noodle without the whole endeavor snowballing into a giant pratfall apocalypse. To live this way must be a nightmare. Presumably, Po’s Jack Blackian stoner-dude persona developed as a coping mechanism against his persistent failure to comprehend basic physics or the dimensions of his own body. Viewed in simple percentages, Po’s existence is one long, grim parade of physical degradation interspersed with fleeting moments of explosive, uncontrolled violence. It’s like something Paul Schrader would’ve written in the mid-1970s.
The plot is simple: the evil Shen—a neurotic albino peacock voiced by a very funny Gary Oldman—has returned to the Valley after many years in exile. Shen usurps the throne through use of a new superweapon constructed with metal stolen from the Valley during a series of raids. An ornately-decorated fireworks canon, said weapon is best described as a sort of Death Star-type thing crossed with the inside of a P.F. Chang’s. Bad news, especially since it was Shen who, years earlier, had ordered the massacre of the panda village that led to Po being orphaned before his adoption by the kindly avian restaurateur Mr. Ping (James Hong, reprising his role from the first film.) Incidentally, The Rape of Panda Village is the name of my new grindcore band. Look for our album Corpse Bamboo later this year.
Shen’s reemergence comes at a particularly inconvenient time for Po, who has begun to question his own identity upon discovered that Ping (a goose) is not, in fact, his real father. There are some great “dramatic” scenes between Po and his dad that are all the more hilarious for being played straight, and Black and Hong do great work together. But elsewhere, unfortunately, Black tries much too hard with what little he’s given to chew on, character-wise. And apart from Oldman, the rest of the supporting players all turn in predictably dull, DreamWorks-y vocal performances. It’s particularly difficult to reconcile Seth Rogan’s raspy stoner’s bark with the design of his tiny cricket character. An insect that size wouldn’t have the lung capacity required to produce such a deep, gurgling timber. Also, no lungs. IT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.
But why get nit-picky about lame one-liners and mediocre characters? File it under “Who Cares,” ’cause as anyone who’s seen KFuP1 can attest, the Kung Fu-niverse isn’t about character, it’s about turbocharged action set pieces. And the action here is even better than in the first film: full of clever staging, wacky physics, and the inventive use of props. Once scene midway through the film culminates in a legitimately breakneck handcart chase that reminded me a bit of the awesome slapstick climax of Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? And far from becoming monotonous, each of these scenes have their own distinct narrative and environment, with consistently escalating spectacle and peril.
It’s clear that one of director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s goals with this sequel was to one-up the first film’s striking visual palette. Whatever else the film lacks, it more than makes up for it via sheer eyeballs-popping-out-of-skulls gorgeousness. This is, by far, the best-looking CGI panda movie I’ve ever seen. The film’s vision of fantastical ancient China overrun with talking animals is incredibly lush and immersive, and is further aided by some blessedly unshitty 3-D. The extra dimension is used especially well in flashbacks, which incorporate traditional hand-drawn 2-D animation to create a dreamlike series of layered images that wouldn’t look out of place projected onto the wall of a modern art museum.
Guillermo Del Toro is listed in the end credits as a visual consultant, and it shows. KFuP2 has a lot of Del Toro’s signature goopy/glossy sheen built into its DNA. It also shares the Hellboy director’s fondness for ornate set design, crowding the frame with dark wooden curlicues and billowing red tapestries. It looks great. And incidentally, Dark Wooden Curlicues is the name of my new electroclash duo (Rape of Panda Village broke up between paragraphs 5 and 9.)
Like all good sequels, Kung-Fu Panda 2 improves and expands upon the best elements of the first film. Minor quibbles aside, it’s a good piece of filmmaking—at once economical and richly detailed. You could do a lot worse this summer, and you undoubtedly will. But Po is one of the good guys. Good enough, at least.