Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Movie Review: "Kung Fu Panda 2" (2011)

It is normally the consensus that movie sequels tend to suck. Films that fail to live up to the expectations of their predecessors, such as “The Matrix” sequels or “The Pirates Of The Caribbean” movies, or ones that only serve as quick cash-ins on the popularity of others, mainly the “Transformers” abominations of cinema.

My theory for why most sequels fail to cut it or are almost never as good as the first ones is because these new films raise the stacks and up the ante of the drama and action. As a result, less thought and logic is put into the film and thus the movies are less coherent and more prone to cliches. They suffer because they want to emulate the popularity of the previous movies but don’t necessarily want to take any risks to try something new or else lose the audience.

Of course, there have been more than a few good or even great film sequels. Some that even manage to out do their precursors. For example, one of my favorite sequels is “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan,” which is a wonderful Shakespearian-esque sci-fi piece compared to “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” which puts me to sleep every time. Even “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” which takes the premise that began in “The Terminator” and continues it while making the stakes bigger yet keeping the characters interesting and worth pursuing. 

Another film I can now add to that list is “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which manages to outshine “Kung Fu Panda” at nearly every aspect. Not only that, but through a combination of outstanding visuals, touching character moments and interactions, a great sense of humor and captivating action pieces, “Kung Fu Panda 2” is the best work I’ve seen out of Dreamworks Animation. 

Following the events of the first “Kung Fu Panda,” Po (Jack Black) is now the Dragon Warrior who watches over the Valley Of Peace, alongside the Furious Five Kung Fu masters and their mentor Shi Fu (Dustin Hoffman). One day that peace is threatened when Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock bent on conquering all of China, kills the head of the Kung Fu council in Gongmen City with a giant cannon. Now Po and the Five must travel to Gongmen City and stop Lord Shen before he kills Kung Fu conclusively. 

Before I go any further, it should be said that I thought “Kung Fu Panda” was by no means a bad movie. In fact, it was insanely enjoyable at times. The pacing was rather slow and the villain didn’t necessarily fit the tone of the rest of the film, but other than that the action was well done, Po’s transition from lowly panda to Dragon Warrior was a lot fun and made sense considering his character. It feels weird to say, but a film called “Kung Fu Panda” starring Jack Black as a talking panda who goes on about how awesome things are was a very well made movie. Don’t judge a book it’s cover, I guess.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” is very much in the same vein, only now it has to do with sequel problems. Luckily, it overcomes these issues by outshining the first film.

What stood out the most was the emotional core of the film and how it all came back to Po’s search for inner peace. At first, Po and the audience aren’t sure what he has to feel so distraught about. As it’s introduced and we learn more about Po’s history, the film tugs on some heart strings and gives us a reason to care about him as a character. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a little emotional at a few points in the film.

To go alongside the great character moments the film has to offer, “Kung Fu Panda 2” also gets in some great comedy. Another downside to “Kung Fu Panda” was that the jokes were often cliche or missed the mark. Here, nearly every joke works and still stick with me, especially when Po attempts to sneak around the city while avoiding detection. 

As you can imagine for a big oaf like him, that leads to several creative hijinks. 

The fight scenes, while excellently handled, are still roughly on par with “Kung Fu Panda.” The first film broke out of many typical fight scenes with just normal fist fighting, and included many environmental battles, including one where a bridge was used as the main weapon. 

In the sequel, there aren’t as many of those fights, but instead we have a variety of different fighters, with the villain using his cannons, blades and peacock feathers to attack, rather than his fists...or feathers, I guess.

Finally, the visual appeal of the film is wonderful. Going for a mystical Chinese approach, similar to films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the visual palette is full of awe inspiring color. The film takes full advantage of the fact that it’s an animated movie and chooses the visual style of every shot carefully, even down the color of the villain’s clothing and feathers. Even the simple act of the main cast traveling on a boat towards Gongmen City looks gorgeous. 

Honestly, there is very little for me to complain about with “Kung Fu Panda 2.” It’s a film that hits all the right notes and capitalizes on everything that made the first movie so great. Everything, down to the villain’s motivation for wanting to take over China and his own character weaknesses, just feels right and sensible. It was a blast to watch and I’d gladly do it again. 

Final Grade: A 

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