Judge Clark Douglas has mastered the art of kung fu criticism.
"Ah, my old enemy…stairs!"
Facts of the Case
Po the Panda (Jack Black, School of Rock) is living the good life: he's mastered kung fu, he has friends who love him, and countless fans who offer endless praise each day. However, he's just made a startling discovery: Mr. Ping the Goose (James Hong, Big Trouble in Little China) isn't his biological father. Po was adopted as a child, but his memories of his parents are extremely hazy. As Po attempts to solve the riddle of his past, he's forced to deal with a major threat in the present. The villainous peacock Shen (Gary Oldman, Air Force One) has created a new weapon which could very well represent the end of kung fu in China. Can Po, Tigress (Angelina Jolie, Salt), Mantis (Seth Rogen, Knocked Up), Monkey (Jackie Chan, Rush Hour), Crane (David Cross, Arrested Development), Viper (Lucy Liu, Charlie's Angels) and Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man) save the day, or will Shen achieve his diabolical goals?
Dreamworks Animation's Kung Fu Panda arrived at precisely the right time for the studio. After a series of wheezy, underwhelming features which relied more on lazy pop culture references and celebrity voices than good storytelling, many were beginning to write Dreamsworks off. Kung Fu Panda might not have eclipsed all the Dreamworks films which preceded it, but it was the first to suggest the studio was capable of setting aside its penchant for trendy disposability and engaging in a more timeless, character-driven form of storytelling (something the studio would suggest again with How to Train Your Dragon). As such, my expectations for Kung Fu Panda 2 were reasonably high. Would Dreamworks be able to capture the warmth and charm which made the original such an appealing experience? Only partially, I'm afraid.
Kung Fu Panda 2 has a number of problems, most of which seem rooted in the fact that Dreamworks is more concerned with franchise-building than creating a satisfying self-contained experience. A good deal of Kung Fu Panda 2 is spent laying the groundwork for material to be explored in later installments, which gets a little frustrating after a while. Even more problematic is the fact that the series has a whole lot of trouble figuring out what to do with Po. Much of the humor in the first film came from the clumsy panda's hopeless efforts to learn kung fu, but he had mastered it by the film's conclusion. Alas, the filmmakers seem hesitant to search for humor in other areas, so they essentially hit the reset button on many parts of Po's character. Sometimes he's a great warrior; other times he's a chunky buffoon who can't muster the energy to climb a flight of stairs. Every marvelous athletic display severely undercuts the moments in which Po acts like helpless comic relief.
The film also struggles to juggle its large cast of characters, as many of the assorted players feel severely short-changed. You can count the lines Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu, and Jackie Chan are given on one hand. Dustin Hoffman does wonderful work once again as Shifu, but his character is given far less screen time in this installment (a shame, since he was the highlight of the first film). New characters voiced by Victor Garber, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Danny McBride, and Michelle Yeoh are severely underdeveloped. In fact, pretty much the only supporting players who fare well in this installment are Angelina Jolie's Tigress (who is given a proper little story arc and a handful of touching scenes) and Gary Oldman's Shen (an enjoyably hiss-worthy villain who dominates any scene he appears in).
The disappointments were most assuredly what dominated my first viewing of Kung Fu Panda 2, but a second viewing with adjusted expectations enabled me to better appreciate the film's virtues. To begin with, the action sequences are consistently fantastic, staged with inventive flair and breathtaking cinematography. There's a graceful fluidity to the chaos and mayhem, and just the right mix of hard-hitting realism and physics-defying cartoonishness. The animation is consistently gorgeous, including a few scenes done in an old-fashioned two-dimensional form. Messy as the story may be at times (I haven't even mentioned the irritating opening sequence which essentially tells us how the movie will end before the story even gets underway), there are some tender moments which work rather well and quite a few bits of humor which work like gangbusters (including one scene which ranks as one of 2011's funniest cinematic moments; it takes place right around the time Po makes a big appearance in the third act). The film is entertaining from scene to scene, but it adds up to less than the sum of its parts. This is a rather enjoyable flick which tends to sour when you really start thinking about it.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (Blu-ray) features an absolutely gorgeous 2.35:1/1080p transfer. I feel like I'm saying the same about every modern animated Blu-ray release, but this really does look flawless. The level of detail is spectacular; you can see every hair, feather, and scale on each character with crystal clarity. Blacks are deep and inky and the film uses shadow very impressively; an attribute Dreamworks Animation has been quietly mastering. There are no banding issues of any sort, either. Colors have a lot of pop throughout, though there are some scenes which feature an intentionally muted palette. The DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio track offers a whole lot of punch, with action scenes which will make your room rumble. The sound design is fantastic throughout and there's a whole lot of immersive rear speaker action. It really feels like the characters are bouncing off the walls at times. The fun score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell is given a generous mix, too.
Supplements are plentiful, though mixed in quality. The premium bonus feature (so special it's given its own section on the disc menu) is a new 23-minute short film entitled Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Masters. Though Po, Tigress, Shifu, and Mantis make appearances at the beginning and end, it's primarily a 2-D primer on some minor supporting characters featured on Kung Fu Panda 2. Honestly, I found it pretty disposable (though not as disposable as the premiere episode of Nickelodeon's Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, which is also included in the bonus features). In the "Blu-ray Exclusives" section, you'll find three items: an "Animation Inspiration" interactive map (click various places on the map to reveal videos, photo galleries, and more), an "Animator's Corner" picture-in-picture track (basically a video commentary with a handful of additional goodies and participants thrown into the mix), and a trivia track.
In the basic "special features" section, you'll be treated to a handful of more conventional (though by no means inferior) stuff: an audio commentary featuring a boatload of crew members, a "Kickin' It With the Cast" (12 minutes) featurette which highlights the actors, a "Panda Stories" (8 minutes) featurette which highlights efforts to save real-life Pandas, a couple of interactive activities for the kids ("Kung Fu Shuffle" and "Ni Hao"), a DVD Copy, a Digital Copy and two "Kung Fu Panda World Online" game memberships. If nothing else, the supplemental package reveals what a massive, sprawling franchise Kung Fu Panda is turning into.
Kids will have a blast with Kung Fu Panda 2, and there are plenty of attributes which grown-ups will enjoy. On a technical level, it's fantastic. Still, it's frustrating to see the filmmakers fumble so frequently when it comes to handling the characters and story.
Kung Fu Panda 2 is guilty of failing to live up to the standard set by
its predecessor. The filmmakers are ordered to do some fine-tuning before
heading into the third installment.
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