I was prejudiced against Kung Fu Panda right from the start because one of my least favorite actors, Jack Black, voiced the lead, and from the trailers, Po the panda pretty much acted like a big fuzzy version of Jack Black as well. But this week my choices were the underwhelming remake (sorry, sequel) to The Hangover or Kung Fu Panda 2. To help me make my decision, I watched Kung Fu Panda on Thursday night. I was surprised by how much I liked it, so I went for the sequel when it came out on Friday. Here’s the storyline:
A kung fu warrior panda must make peace with his mysterious past in order to defeat an evil peacock’s ultimate weapon.
In the first film, Po the panda, a kung fu enthusiast with no skills, was selected as the elite dragon warrior who would defeat an evil rival kung fu master.Kung Fu Panda 2 nicely ties in a lot of the elements from the first movie, such as a panda having a goose for a father, but it’s not necessary to see the first one in order to enjoy Kung Fu Panda 2. And I did enjoy it. In fact, I think I even found the sequel to be funnier than the original, although from the headlines I’ve seen not many “real” critics agree with me.
The first thing I want to mention about Kung Fu Panda is the atmosphere, which is created through a combination of animation and music. The computer animated sequences are extremely well done, especially the fur texture. It even looks realistically wet. The animals’ kung fu moves also flow really well and suit their body types. But my favorite part of the animation was the classical 2D dream/credit sequences. These sequences and the film’s score (by Hans Zimmer… that guy really is a jack of all musics) use a lot of familiar Chinese motifs and really help the movie feel Chinese, even though it’s made by Dreamworks and all the major voice actors are Westerners.
This is from the first one, but you get the idea.
A lot of modern animated movies, even ones that are based on books, tend to have either retarded premises (think Mars Needs Moms) or plots so thin that they would blow away in a stiff breeze (think Yogi Bear). Luckily Kung Fu Panda is neither. This is partly due to the skill of screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, but mostly because of the vast depth of Chinese history, culture, and mythology. A screenwriter would have to be an idiot to fail to find something interesting to write about China.
So there’s a panda… a tiger… who do kung fu… on a rickshaw! Yeah!
The story incorporates one of the more fascinating aspects of Chinese history – the fact that they invented gunpower – with mythology and make believe. In the opening background animation, we hear the story of Shen (Gary Oldman) the peacock prince of far away Gongmen City who was cast out for turning his parent’s beautiful fireworks into a weapon and using it to hunt down all the pandas because a Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) predicted a black and white warrior would bring him down.
How could you hurt this face? How!!??
Shen spends years huddled in the mountains making weapons, sending his lieutenant, a wolf (Danny McBride) on raids for more metal, where Po and the furious five, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogan), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross), first encounter his evil plot.
His evil, evil, mandolin-stealing plot.
It throws Po off guard because it wakes up his latent memories, leading him to believe his dad (who, I have previously mentioned, is a goose) may not be his real dad. (Well duh! Says all the other characters).
I love Po’s goose daddy (James Hong). He’s obsessed with noodles.
Then Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) receives word from the kung fu masters in Gongmen City that Shen has retaken the city by force, and the warriors are dispatched to, well, dispatch him. To defeat Shen, Shifu warns Po that he will have to find inner peace.
This is represented by the ability to stand on top of a stick and catch a rain drop.
So the Furious Five +1’s journey is partly fighting and partly a quest to help Po remember his Moses-like back story. Like the first Kung Fu Panda the furious five are purely subsidiary, with Tigress coming the closest to being a major character, which I think is a waste of voice talent.
We only get three lines each? Seriously??
The first part of the movie is hilarious. They may have cut my favorite jokes from the trailer (the “message from the universe” joke and the “beware the signs” joke) but there was still plenty to laugh at. My favorite part was when the six warriors commandeer a Chinese dragon costume in order to sneak through the city and go around eating guards, beating them up, and spitting them out the back.
I want a toy of this costume so I can make the google eyes roll around like they did in the movie!
SHEN: “You see me at the bottom of the–”
The second part of the movie, however, after the warriors have their first encounter with Shen, is actually quite dark. This is where we find out about Po’s tragic story, where the six suffer defeats, and where the world almost ends. It’s quite moving in parts (there may have been a tear) but not funny, despite the writers’ desperate attempts to throw in some humor here and there. It doesn’t make the movie bad, just a little unbalanced.
It’s hard to be funny with a giant world-ending cannon pointed at you, I guess.
As for the ending, it’s very satisfying, or it would be, if they hadn’t slapped a random extra minute of something on there that’s a blatant cliffhanger type setup for a sequel. I hate it when movies do this. I’m a firm believer that each movie should be self contained, even if it’s part of a series. Anyway, if you can ignore that bit and you laughed a little at the Kung Fu Panda 2 trailer, you’ll really like the movie whether or not you’ve got a kid to bring as a shield. Don’t bother seeing it in 3D, though, I didn’t and it made no difference, except to my wallet.