EXPECTATIONS: Given my track record for movies starring talking animals, it may come as a surprise that I was a pretty big fan of Kung Fu Panda. I loved it the way most normal people loved How to Train Your Dragon. KFP had all the hallmarks of a great action comedy with almost none of the pitfalls that typically plague Dreamworks movies. My concern is that they already said everything that needed to be said with the first movie about a panda bear that learns to become a kung fu master. Anything beyond that seems like it'd just be the continuing adventures of a fat animal beating stuff up. Trust me, though, I would love to be proven wrong.
REALITY: One of Pixar's guiding principles is "Story is everything." Of late, it seems like one of Dreamworks' guiding principles is "Story is incidental." Look at the Shrek sequels, for example. If you've never seen the first Kung Fu Panda, then the sequel may seem like an amazing piece of animated filmmaking. It's a surprisingly dark story for a kids' film; the animation is amazing, top-tier work; and the use of 3D is some of the best I've ever seen. However, the story simply doesn't live up to (or even make much sense after) the original. It's more or less exactly what we've come to expect out of big, flashy summer blockbusters.
I am completely lost here.
This film opens with some beautifully animated backstory regarding the villain. Years ago, it was foretold that when peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) becomes the king of China, he would be deposed by a panda warrior. Upon hearing this news, Shen flies into a murderous rage and commits panda genocide. This is not me trying to be funny. He tries to kill all the pandas. In the present, Po (Jack Black) is still learning the ins and outs of being the Dragon Warrior. Along with the Furious Five, Po protects the land from wolf bandits and presumably other small-time thieves and muggers. When Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) learns that Lord Shen has a weapon that "can destroy kung fu" (in other words: Shen invented the cannon), he sends Po and the Five to destroy it. Along the way, Po discovers the truth about Lord Shen, and also he must achieve inner peace if he wants to save the day and all that fun stuff.
"So what the hell's wrong with that?" you might be asking yourself. Well, anonymous movie review reader, what the hell's wrong with that is that nowadays, whenever a franchise wants to flesh out its characters it inevitably goes backwards and starts inventing backstory that often completely negates what we've already been told. Horror movies do this to try and humanize the character, as though we really needed to sympathize with Hannibal Lecter. Action movies like to do this because having a new villain show up is apparently too convenient these days. It wasn't enough that Sandman was a villain with superpowers; he also needed to be the guy who shot Spider-Man's uncle.
This rears its ugly head in Kung Fu Panda 2 as well. It's not enough that Lord Shen has a cannon that can obliterate most things, he also had to be the peacock version of Hitler. You know, because it's fun when kids' movies draw upon world history for story ideas. Or wait, since there was a prophecy involved before the massacre, I guess that's supposed to make Lord Shen sort of like King Herod. If Shen becomes Herod in this analogy, does that mean Po is supposed to be Panda Jesus? You know, because it's fun when kids' movies draw upon the Bible for story ideas.
They really did paint themselves in a corner when they made the first Kung Fu Panda. For as short and sweet as it was, it managed to pull off the Hero's Journey formula pretty efficiently. Once that was over and done with, though, there was really no place else to go with the character but back to the beginning. We've seen the first film; we know Po is the Dragon Warrior and that he can defeat most opponents by bouncing them off his ass and saying "Ska-doosh." The only way to make any opponent a credible threat is to take away Po's will to be awesome.
Moments later the poor animals hit the ground and were reduced to mush.Incidentally, this is the way almost every Metroid game operates. "Here is Samus. Isn't she awesome with all her cool power-ups and abilities? Yeah, she is. Too bad we have to take them all away now. But don't worry! She'll get them all back eventually. Have fun!" Now, replace "Samus" with "Po," "power-ups and abilities" with "secret kung fu move," and you've got the now-established formula for every Kung Fu Panda movie from here til doomsday:
"Here is Po. Isn't he awesome? Yeah, he is. Now here's a secret kung fu move. Isn't it way more awesome? Yeah. Too bad he doesn't know how to do it yet. But don't worry! He'll figure it out in about 90 minutes. Have fun!"
It may seem like I'm being nitpicky and perhaps expecting a little too much out of a children's movie starring animals that talk and do kung fu, but this isn't some bare-bones animation house we're talking about here. This is Dreamworks. They sunk a couple hundred million dollars into this movie, and for some reason they even brought in Guillermo del Toro to help hammer things out. Don't tell me they couldn't come up with something better than Peacock Hitler vs. Panda Jesus.
Kung Fu Panda 2 is every bit the eye-popping animated wonder that the first film was, and it gives its voice cast some fun lines to chew through (Gary Oldman in particular is pretty great), but when I start asking questions like "Why is nobody surprised to see a panda in the first movie?" then it becomes clear that either the people at Dreamworks seriously thought nobody would notice, or a seven-year old is now their new Vice President in charge of Story Development.
|Use of 3-D||10/10|
|The Furious Five||Are Barely in this Movie, Damnit!|
MINORITY REPORT: I can't wait for your book about talking animal movies. The chapter on Kung Fu Panda is going to be the least interesting, though, because I like watching you suffer. When is Marmaduke 2 out? - Ian "ProfessorClumsy" Maddison
TOTAL WRECK - crazy-eyed hound is covered in cobwebs, has a vespiary on back, graffiti on side and savage thirst for boat fuel. Frankly, I'm in over my head. He's in room 115 at Motel 6, yours free. 555-2851
Yes, it's the perfect form for surviving a car crash. But it's also the perfect form for so much more, like surviving the trauma of reading any news headline in 2016.
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