'Kung Fu Panda 2' Continues the Fun
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
DreamWorks' favorite panda returns, charged with saving China from an evil peacock who's stockpiling WMD that will make martial arts obsolescent. "Kung Fu Panda 2" packs lots of firepower: detailed, reach-out-and-touch creature design, lush settings, big 3-D action set pieces. And there's a grabby origin story explaining why both hero and villain suffer from painful mommy and daddy issues, recalling those that haunted Batman and the Penguin.
Po (Jack Black) continues his unlikely hero's journey, from doting goose dad's noodle shop to fame as Dragon Warrior, and now on a quest for his real identity. (Our boy's only belatedly twigged to the unlikelihood of a long-necked goose siring an oversized panda!) Despite his black-and-white coloration (curled up, he's a yin-yang fur ball), what Po discovers in "KFP2" isn't his dark side. His real father doesn't turn out to be a panda version of Darth Vader, though the albino peacock who holds the key to Po's origins does come from the same ruthless stock. And, not surprisingly, the childhood trauma Po finally dredges up looks a lot like Luke Skywalker's worst memory.
The Furious Five, Po's kung fu team (Lucy Liu, Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan), are all on board for the sequel, but only Jolie's purring Tigress gets enough screen time to almost create a 3-D character. One hopes the filmmakers aren't grooming the unflappable feline as a possible love interest for Po; that would be like Lara Croft making out with a teddy bear.
Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) -- Yoda as red panda -- turns up to demonstrate to klutzy, eternally hungry Po the kind of grace that inner peace can bring, as he dances with a droplet of water, then deftly releases it to earth. New faces include kung fu masters Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Oxen (Dennis Haysbert) and Rhino (Victor Garber) -- and a goat-soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) who can't stop herself from nibbling on robes even while dishing dire prophecy.
Despite improvements and reinforcements, "Kung Fu Panda 2" looks a little too much like training wheels for tots who will grow up to ride franchise machines like "Pirates of the Caribbean 4." In that film, even Jack Sparrow's effete charm wears thin as he bounces in and out of multiple bouts of silly aerial gymnastics. Similarly, Po is sent flying into space so often he's more volleyball than kung fu champ. The camera's nonstop swooping and zooming -- gotta jack up those 3-D effects -- becomes an end in itself, as if the movie were already an amusement ride.
Killing time, "Pirates" drifts all over the map, its climax so detoured and delayed that one fairly aches for somebody, anybody, to drink the Kool-Aid of eternal youth. That sort of slowdown trips up Po and Co., too, as they edge toward showdown with the lethally elegant villain. Too many obligatory, assembly-line fight sequences with legions of ugly wolves retard the story's forward drive. Po and his posse defeated, triumphant, near-dead, resurrected -- there's way too much backing and filling, postponing the definitive panda vs. peacock smackdown.
Could be I've set the bar too high for "KFP2," expecting it to stand up to, say, the artful animations of Hayao Miyazaki, in which character and meaning are paramount, never playing second fiddle to slam-bang action. There's charm and humor here -- thankfully, not the sort reliant on nonstop pop-culture references. At one point, Po appears on a rooftop with a great dramatic flourish, bellowing a challenge at Lord Shen. Trouble is, our clueless hero is so far away, Shen can't hear him ... "What? What?"
It's axiomatic that a franchise needs a memorable villain. A badass snow leopard in the first "Kung Fu Panda," Ian McShane jolts "Pirates 4" to life every time his seriously satanic Blackbeard appears. Likewise, "KFP2"'s silky Lord Shen (Gary Oldman, a virtuoso voice), instigator of genocide and infernal gunpowder plots, steals the show whenever he click-clicks into view, spreading his tail like a homicidal coquette, his long claws encased in metal guards. Shen's invention is the same one that polluted Eden in "Princess Mononoke," and, like King Herod, the psychotic peacock tries to fend off fate -- defeat by panda -- by means of wholesale murder.
In the film's prologue, the dark tale of Shen's youthful sins and banishment finds expression in delicate paper-theater cut-outs, almost Beardsley-esque in their exquisitely curving grace. There's magic here -- and in much of the gorgeously realized imagery of the film proper -- that deserves better than the movie's largely uncomplicated cartoon characters and adventures. Only Oldman's preening psychopath is at home in these sumptuous environs. Shen's lust for power and revenge takes on something like tragic resonance when his soothsayer warns him, "The cup you seek to fill has no bottom." That's a peacock who deserves a movie all his own.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.