I’ve never been among those who adored Kung Fu Panda. I thought the first film was amusing and good in its own way, but nothing groundbreaking or amazing. Perhaps I just found the story too expected, and replacing humans with animals didn’t give it enough of an edge. (As far as anthropomorphism goes, Disney’s Robin Hood is far better. The castle servants in Beauty & the Beast, Carpet in Aladdin and the entire cast of Lion King, A Bug’s Life, Antz and Cars and most of the characters in Toy Story and Finding Nemo also fall under the category of anthropomorphism, but I think Robin Hood is the best one to use for comparison to Kung Fu Panda. It’s less of animals/inanimate objects in their “natural” states but with human capabilities of speech and thought and emotion, but more of animal actors in human roles – behaving like humans by not only talking, but also by wearing clothes, walking on two legs instead of four, etc.)
So I went into the cinema to see Kung Fu Panda 2 without a great deal of expectations. I hadn’t even seen the trailer. I just expected it to be funny and to have some kung fu action sequences. It didn’t blow me away, but it didn’t exactly disappoint either.
Po the Panda (Jack Black), now quite comfortable being the Dragon Warrior and all friendly with the Furious Five, finds a new enemy to fight in the peacock, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). Like any self-respecting villain, Lord Shen wants to rule the world (or at least just China). As these things typically go, the villain makes use of technology (i.e. cannons) to challenge the traditional order of things and all of a sudden, the kung fu masters around the country find their status threatened. Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) sends Po and the Five off to Gongmen City to save the day. But Po is troubled by vague memories that are suddenly resurfacing – memories of his real parents – and this proves to be nearly fatal as he lets opportunities slip in his attempt to find out the truth about his origins. (It baffles the mind how he went so long really believing that Ping the goose was his dad.) To defeat Lord Shen, Po must first find his inner peace.
There were several good scenes and sequences. The most impressive part was probably the opening sequence, which told the backstory of Lord Shen in the form of simulated paper cutout animation. It looked something like our local wayang kulit (shadow puppet shows) but the design was very much “China.” It was just really detailed and well-designed. I almost wished they had done the entire film that way.
The other scenes that stick in my mind are those that feature Po’s adoptive father, Ping (James Hong). The flashback of Ping (James Hong) discovering a super adorable and very hungry baby Po in a crate of radishes and then deciding to raise him as his own son. Ping giving Po a backpack full of food and stuff before he set off for Gongmen City – and at the same time asking him not to go. Ping just about bursting into tears because he’s so worried about him when a customer with a sulky-looking kid demands to meet the Dragon Warrior. Oh, and the small bits with the Soothsayer (a very recognisable Michelle Yeoh) were funny – especially when she would randomly nibble on Lord Shen’s trailing coat.
Some elements were just wasted and ought not to have been included at all, such as all the bits about Tigress (Angelina Jolie) being stern and Shifu turning up at the final battle with Masters Storming Ox and Croc. With the repeated mentions of Tigress being “hardcore”, I really expected to learn her background – to learn what made her thus. But there was none of that. Wikipedia informs me there was a TV series about the Furious Five and that tells of her background. That’s probably why they didn’t do anything with that point in the film. But that doesn’t mean that it was at all necessary to keep reiterating the fact that Tigress is “hardcore.”
The sudden appearance of the three Masters – Shifu, Storming Ox and Croc – in the final battle was just as wasted. They were hardly seen in action and their presence didn’t do much to turn the tide in Po’s favour. I would have thought that Shifu might have some last wise words for Po or whack him on the head or something and tell him to stop being so distracted by his memories but instead there was… nothing. Shifu did nothing. It just felt as though the director (Jennifer Yuh Nelson) had decided that it would be just cool to have Shifu and the two other Masters jump in at the end.
At about 90 minutes, the movie is relatively short and fast-paced. A lot of time was given to the fight sequences, some of which were rather bewildering in the action. From a technical standpoint, the animation was good and so was the production design (very nice and very appropriate architecture design, for instance). The music was unmemorable – I was somewhat startled to see Hans Zimmer’s name come up in the end credits for music, alongside John Powell.
Both the Kung Fu Panda movies are simple ones – so simple that you can pretty much guess the entire story from the first few minutes alone. Perhaps that is both a pro and a con. It means that if you’re looking for something with more depth or for something to rival any of Pixar’s films, this isn’t it. But if you need something light and easy that will give you some laughs and a few “awww” moments, then this is it.