Jack Black, Gary Oldman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan
Kung Fu Panda 2 is the best mainstream animation of the year
Back in 2008, Dreamworks Animation bolstered their 3D stable with the release of the original Kung Fu Panda. A blatant Jack Black vehicle, it wrested control of the film from his normal gibbering histrionics by freeing the audience from having to witness hisrubber faced ridiculousness. In animated form, Black proved to be genial enough company and, along with a surprisingly starry supporting cast (Jolie, Hoffman, Chan), the film was already on track to provide some competent summer entertainment. And then there was the action.
Without a doubt, Kung Fu Panda contains some of the most thrilling and downright awesome action sequences we’ve seen in Western cinema this millennium. While that might sound like an exaggeration, there’s almost nothing to touch the verve and style of the Eastern-flavoured melee’s it conjures – rife with the kind of intimate and epic moments of cinematic carnage you expect to see in a finely crafted Wushu film. It elevated the whole experience far beyond its child friendly roots and the escape of the evil Tai Lung (a terrific Ian McShane) from his subterranean prison has become a scene to enjoy on Blu-ray time and again.
In short, Kung Fu Panda 2 has a lot to live up to, and it has delivered in spades.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (previously subtitled The Kaboom of Doom – which we miss) takes the robust template of the original film and improves it in almost every way. The world feels remarkably lived in and coherent, a keen mix of Chinese historical and mythical imagery with anthropomorphic animals. The unique setting lends itself to consistently attractive and often stunning visuals which are supplemented by some traditional cel animation and even a shadow play during the introduction.
The result is simply charming, presenting a more well-rounded whole than the first film with more well observed comedy, a better story and a disarming readiness to tackle darker themes and scenarios. The history of how Po came to be adopted is told in a series of flashbacks and the revelation raised a genuine tear or two in this cynical critic. It all adds weight to a well-meaning finale which preaches a self healing message that is a step above the genre norm.
With an upswing in the overall quality of the production, something had to suffer and unfortunately it’s the action. It lacks the epic sweep of the original, the heady style and bone crunching choreography. It’s highlighted by the strange lack of speed ramping, transitioning in and out of slow motion, which is a perfect way to highlight intricate engagements in a CG title – where impossible camera angles are easily attainable. That said, the action you’ll find in Kung Fu Panda 2 is far from lacklustre – there’s a wonderful attention to detail in the thunderous tag team attacks of Po and the Furious Five and several blistering engagements which up the scale of the battles. A neat, if predictable, narrative through-line builds on the notion of inner piece to deliver a thrilling final encounter which doesn’t quite sustain its pace well enough to be truly stunning.
Jack Black is mercifully understated here, in so far as a hyperactive, overweight, animated, kung fu kicking panda can be understated. The jokes are nicely paced and he has enough sense to underplay the emotional moments while also mostly steering clear of ad-libbing ridiculousness. The rest of the cast, apart from a delicious Gary Oldman and fairly nondescript Angelina Jolie, are generally underused and you’ll be hard pressed to even catch more than a few mumbled lines from the likes of Lucy ‘what the hell happened to her’ Liu and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The latter turned down a significant role in Stallone’s The Expendables to appear as a practically invisible lisping crocodile in an animation. Good choice. Some of the films best scenes exemplify the altered character of the series; a series of heartfelt and gently humorous exchanges between Po and his father Mr. Ping (James Hong), who can’t quite bring himself to drop the bombshell that the towering Panda may have been adopted.
Kung Fu Panda 2 is the best mainstream animation of the year; crowd pleasing, effectively made and built around a solid story which isn’t merely a frame for the next sight gag or action sequence. It’s a significant step forward for Dreamworks Animation, a company which has foundered in the wake of CG behemoths Pixar by trying to forge their own niche in popcultural assaults and ‘clever’ premises like the Shrek series and Madagascar. Here, they’ve worked hard to establish their own unique world and characters in the first film and capitalised on that foundation in near perfect fashion. Perhaps the action could have been a tad more visceral but otherwise this is a fantastically entertaining and visually stunning slice of summer fun.