Written by: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Directed by: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Starring: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, James Hong, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride, Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme
When it was first released I saw Kung Fu Panda twice, the first time was deliberate and the second time was somewhat more circumstantial but generally speaking it was boring, unfunny and flavourless. Thus concludes the most I will ever write here about Kung Fu Panda.
Kung Fu Panda 2 couldn’t have been much less appealing to me but then, amongst many of the strange choices made by the Academy this year, it was nominated for Best Animated Feature, alongside the brilliant Rango and inexplicably pinching out the far superior The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Reviews were weirdly positive, and when I looked further into it I learned that Charlie Kaufman was a script consultant. Huh. My interests were piqued. The script for Kung Fu Panda 2 must’ve passed over Charlie Kaufman’s desk at a hell of a clip, because there isn’t a lot going on here that is more interesting or more engaging than the first film. Yes, perhaps this one is a little lighter on the catch-phrasey “skadoosh”-ing but this is still very much a vehicle for Jack Black’s goofiness.
Po (Black) is the titular panda who begins this film as a fully-integrated sixth member of The Furious Five, and while fighting off some bandits he has a flashback of being taken from his birth parents. We learn that the evil Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) was told by a soothsayer that a “black and white warrior” would defeat him, and ever since he has been attempting to wipe pandas off the face of the Earth (get it?). The flashback triggers the realization in Po that his dad, a goose named Mr. Ping (James Hong), may not be his real dad after all. The rest of the film follows Po on his quest to learn the truth about his past and subsequently to stop Lord Sheng from blowing up China with fireworks, or something.
It’s not bad, it’s just underwhelming. The animation is beautiful but director Jennifer Yuh Nelson never seems to utilize it, ignoring the potential for elegant kung fu action sequences in favor of close-up gags involving Po’s incompetence or his big belly. Kung Fu Panda 2 has a voice cast or enormous talent, including Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman and Gary Oldman, all of who are fine but ultimately contribute very little. Voices from Seth Rogen, David Cross and even Jack Black himself are really grating in this movie, because even though they are all talented people the anachronism of their voices in an Ancient Chinese setting are irritating to no end. It certainly couldn’t have been cheap to cast Jackie Chan and Jean-Claude Van Damme in roles here and, considering they don’t have a single complete line between them, it was not money well spent. Ancient China is a great setting for a children’s film and it is a shame that it is wasted on this franchise which centers around such an unlikeable main character. Po is not bad but he’s obnoxious to a fault and it spoils what could be a great concept. To the film’s credit I will say that I have a certain affection for the relationship between Po and Mr. Ping, which consistently provides the truly funny and tender moments that are lacking in the rest of the film.
I always worry that I’m too harshly critical of films aimed at children, but I really don’t think so. I love children’s movies, and I think they are an excellent point of contact where children can willfully gather such important information about the world. There is so much out there, including films from Pixar, Studio Ghibli and Aardman Animations, that are funny, interesting, intelligent and properly creative all designed specifically for children. Why then are the Kung Fu Pandas, Shreks and Madagascars the films that seem to be more popular? I believe that children are smart enough and savvy enough to accept plots more complex than “fat panda falls down” and I believe they are receptive to the more intricate emotional experiences offered by films like Up, so I believe it’s not unfair to demand that films like Kung Fu Panda 2 treat younger audience members with the respect they deserve.