3 June 2011

Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda 2


B+

Kung Fu Panda 2
2011, 90mins, PG
Director: Jennifer Yuh
Writer (s): Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Cast includes: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu
UK Release Date: 10th June 2011

I have to confess 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda” left me a little perplexed and underwhelmed. It’s not that I felt the Asian scented DreamWorks effort was certifiably bad, but it did fail to match my heightened expectations; the production was after all one of the most warmly received blockbusters of its release year. Consequently it gives me great pleasure to admit that I enjoyed “Kung Fu Panda 2” heartily, the sequel providing a funnier, bouncier and more emotionally resonant dose of martial arts heavy animation. The classy voice cast are still on top form (clearly the original picture’s sturdiest selling point), but this time the screenplay applies more focus to defining the giddy characters. It’s this type of mature addition to the DreamWorks formula that has allowed the production company to begin approaching Pixar levels of greatness.

Po (voiced by Jack Black) is now a Kung Fu hero in his own right, regularly called into action alongside warrior comrades Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Snake (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan) and of course wise Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman in full-blown Yoda mode). When the villainous Lord Shen (a tremendous Gary Oldman) threatens the Kung Fu way of life using a mysterious weapon, Po and the gang are tasked with stopping him. However Po’s quest to attain inner peace limits his abilities against Shen, a problem exacerbated when it transpires the feathered villain might have a disturbing connection with the panda’s hazy past.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” is a richly detailed and beautifully designed picture, combining an authentic oriental style with the studio’s more typically goofball sensibility. Director Jennifer Yuh (making a remarkably high profile feature debut here), clearly has talent when it comes to world building and steering action, on both fronts she absolutely excels herself. “Kung Fu Panda 2” obviously owes a massive debt to the martial arts flicks of old, but is never merely content to simply crib from them. Instead Yuh stages several wildly inventive and brilliantly shot set pieces, merging scale and excitement with good results. The second act of “Kung Fu Panda 2” perhaps becomes overly bogged down in displays of bombastic excess (a cart chase of sorts feels particularly surplus to requirement), but the precise combat choreography and well paced climactic showdown keep it worthwhile.

The vocal work remains topnotch, although even more than last time Jolie, Rogen, Liu, Cross and Chan are sidelined to let the film’s more prominent participants shine. Black is playful as Po, hitting the comedic beats with ease, but also showing a shockingly adept command of the movie’s more character driven components. “Kung Fu Panda 2” excavates Po’s history with more in mind than simply stirring giggles, something evident in a gorgeously composed and genuinely affecting scene during which the title character learns of his tragic past from a soothsayer. Yuh gives this side of the film precedence over the sillier elements, grafting hard to ensure both her hero and antagonist are instilled with credible arcs. As Lord Shen, Oldman is intimidating but also occasionally quite funny, the character’s bodily construction being pure animated gold. A peacock wouldn’t necessarily be the first animal in your mind when thinking of a merciless killing machine, but Oldman’s voice and the sleek CGI work gift Shen with an organically menacing aura.

The middle section of “Kung Fu Panda 2” is somewhat baggier than it needs to be, but the conclusion is a heartfelt and properly thrilling way to culminate the tale. I’m not sure how much more gas the “Kung Fu Panda” universe has left in the tank, this admittedly imaginative sequel probably having squeezed out the final drops of innovation the premise still had to offer. That said, “Kung Fu Panda 2” is unquestionably a decent adventure yarn, primed with a credible roster of laughs and enough soul and humanity to pass muster. If DreamWorks continue to produce product of this standard, it won’t be long before more than just box-office analysts rise to applaud their creations.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2011

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