Saturday, 20 August 2011

Film Review: Kung Fu Panda 2

The first Kung Fu Panda was a whimsical and effervescent affair, grossly underrated yet still managing to sing to the tune of some $600million. Of course, this prompted DreamWorks to produce a sequel. While Kung Fu Panda 2 is most certainly bigger than the first, it does not necessarily mean it is better. There's always a risk when you endeavour to expand a franchise. On the one hand you could be incredibly successful like with Pixar's Toy Story series. On the other, you could run it into the ground, a bit like another DreamWork's production, Shrek. Certainly, sometimes there is a case to be made that maybe some things should just be left well enough alone.

Po (Black) and the gang are back, this time facing a far bigger threat in the form of psychotic albino peacock, Shen (Oldman). Destined to fulfil an ancient prophecy whilst struggling to find his own inner peace, Po must first find himself before he can think about stopping Shen's ambitions to eradicate Kung Fu and take over all of China.

At its core the moral in Kung Fu Panda 2 is the same old; 'believe in yourself' with a dollop of 'what matters is who you are now, not where you came from'. This is essentially the root of Po's identity crisis, who has a goose for a father, and would certainly have appealed to Angela Jolie and her plethora of adopted kids. However if you've ever watched other DreamWorks productions such as Madagascar and Megamind you'll recognise that this is a story in exactly the same mould. In fact, Kung Fu Panda 2 is actually somewhat disconcerting for a children's film. It contains some remarkably morose material including themes of genocide and vengeance which might understandably be upsetting for kids. Likewise, having a psychologically disturbed panda as your film's hero is hardly the most inspiring comic material.

Po, like with Jack Black in general, is also looking tiresome. If you've seen the over-eager clumsiness once - which was the first film's strength - you probably won't want to see it again. While there is an attempt to add a depth to Po as he looks for inner peace, its execution is somewhat tepid, doing more to mimic the movie's already confusing screenplay. The overall effect of this is a strangely disjointed film with some questionable time lapses used to try and have it all make sense. Likewise, the Furious Five - Tigress (Jolie), Monkey (Chan), Viper (Liu), Crane (Cross) and Mantis (Rogen) - do more to crowd the picture rather than rouse proceedings, scarcely making the same indelible impression they did in the first film. What worked there - contrasting Po's idiot bravado against the humble aplomb of his team - seems kind of worn this time round. The best Kung Fu Panda 2 has to offer comes in the shape of two new characters. Michelle Yeoh's soothsaying sheep which provides the most laughs but, as with most children's films of this nature, the villain steals the show. Gary Oldman's peacock, Shen, is an ineffable villain with an evil rasp that will make your toes curl. He displays a similar appeal to another delightfully feathered foe, Rio's Nigel, voiced by Jermaine Clement. Like Rio, Kung Fu Panda 2 only ever seems to come alive when the big bad bird is around.

Ultimately the voice cast assembled is excellent but horribly underused. Lucy Liu and Jean Claude Van Damme for example couldn't have had more than five lines between them. The best thing about Kung Fu Panda 2 are its stunning visuals, a love letter to Chinese artistic styles in a world created out of lollipops and gumdrops. However, the film's capital, its charm and humour, are not nearly as present as in the first which makes for a superlatively bland experience. Still, at least we're finally given an answer as to why Po's dad is a goose. Expect DreamWorks to capitalise with a Kung Fu Panda 3.