It is a bit disconcerting that the third movie in a row that I am writing about is a sequel. Has all creativity gone out of the Hollywood dream factory when it comes to summer movies? I know it is a business, and the costs now a days are out of control. We can usually depend on Pixar for something original, but they have Cars 2 coming out next month so that is off the table for the year. Ultimately I know there are some fresh projects and new ideas coming, but the frequency of the sequels and the remakes is getting me down a bit. Having said that, I can follow up with something a lot more pleasant. This is the best of the sequels that I have seen so far this year. Although there are some plot elements repeated from the first Kung Fu Panda, this new edition does exactly what a sequel ought to do. We revisit characters that we came to love, in a new story and expand on the components that made us fans to begin with. This movie does the opposite of Hangover 2, instead of remaking the same story, we get a new story that follows the trail of the original characters.
Since the first movie came out, I have caught some or all of it many times on the satellite. It was a gorgeous movie and done with a style that made it seem authentically Asian but still accessible to Western sensibilities. This sequel is equally beautiful in the art direction and animation. There are several spectacular sequences that make use of the colors and cultures of old China, or at least how we imagine it might have been. The scene where the Furious Five and Po, sneak through the town disguised as a Chinese Luck Dragon was witty and used some great perspectives to bring us into the action and to show it from a humorous perspective. While three animated films have been nominated for best picture over the last twenty years, none of their directors were included on the list of nominees for best work by a director. I don’t know that this movie is a worthy nominee in the general category, but I saw several things in the film that reminded me that this had to be put together by someone, and the director is the one that makes those artistic choices. I know their work is going to be evaluated in a different way, but they face the same difficulties and consequences that a live action director must deal with. So here are some props for Jennifer Yuh. I looked her up because I was unfamiliar with her as a director. This is her first feature, but not her first experience with Kung Fu Panda. She was the story artist for the first film, which helps explain the continuing look of the movie. If you see this film, be sure to sit through the credits, not because there is a teaser or stinger at the end, but because the background drawings are so beautiful, it would be a shame to miss them.
Since I am passing out the compliments, let me offer some to all of the talented actors that make the movie work as an emotional and dramatic piece of fiction. This is not just an action cartoon, there are some deep themes that touch on friendship, family and even some zen ideas. It takes creative effort to make drawings and paintings come to life as characters. Jack Black has been great in a lot of things but he has also been overexposed. I skipped the Gulliver movie last Christmas because if a trailer can’t make it look interesting for two and a half minutes, there is not much chance a movie that is two hours will be worth seeing. Black’s work here appears to be more subtle and contained than in some of the live action comedies he has done. I really liked his interplay in this movie with Angelina Jolie’s Tigress. It is an awkward friendship, but one that works for characters from such different paths.
The biggest kudos belong to character actor James Hong, a guy I have seen in movies forever. He looked old and wise in “Chinatown” back in 1974. Thirty-seven years later, he sounds the same. Here he is given a chance to do more than usual in the movies he has made. As the adopted father of Po, he is loving, and domineering and fearful in a very honest way. I love that animation can bring out dramatic emotions as well as the humorous. Voice work in the animation business has got to be carefully cast. Too many times, stars are put into roles because they bring a name with them but they are not right for the part. There are dozens of movies in which we lose investment in animated characters because the voices are bland or ill cast. Hong sounds like a father goose, and he has the weary but knowing voice that every father worried about his child would have. His biggest performance on screen may have been in “Big Trouble in Little China”, but his best acting role is in this movie. I hope there is a group out there that gives awards for animated voice work and they need to pay attention to the great work done here by James Hong.
This is at least the fourth animated film I have seen this year, and while it may not rise to the level of “Rango” as a movie, it does make the film world a better place to hang out. There is plenty of humor, action and a nice sense of pathos to hold most movie goers. There was a particularly sad moment in the movie involving Po being separated from his mother. There was a little girl behind us crying inconsolably over the events on screen. It took me back twenty years to the El Capitain Theater in November of 1991. We had taken our two little girls to see “Beauty and the Beast”, and Allison cried out loud and shouted at the screen when the townspeople are marching up to the castle to “kill the beast”. She was taken away by the experience just as the little girl yesterday was. I hope movies will always do that for the young and the young at heart. We want to be entertained of course and we certainly want to be dazzled. More than anything else though,we want to feel. Stories should move us in some way. I judge movies in large part on the emotional reaction I have from them. By that measuer Kung Fu Panda 2 is a success.