Friday, May 27, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2: A Review

"How can kung fu stop something that stops kung fu?"

Po in Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Kung Fu Panda 2 Poster
The film seemed to have lost its subtitle, The Kaboom of Doom.

Just from its trailer alone, I managed to accurately divine the backbone of Kung Fu Panda 2's storyline, and within the first ten minutes after the picture started, I had pretty much guessed every important detail of the script, including its climactic end. Why? Because the movie is a perfect storm of kung fu clichés which I've seen a million times. I am, after all, a Chinese and was practically raised on a steady diet of Hong Kong martial arts films all through my childhood. Almost every element in Dreamwork's sequel to 2008's Kung Fu Panda is a retread, imitation, homage or parody to everything I love about the fictional 江湖 I've grown up with.

And that's precisely why I love Kung Fu Panda 2!

I remember that after I saw the first film, I told myself that the people who made it really "gets it". The humour, the near-magical mysticism, the cheesy Tao-Zen philosophies, the kung fu suppressing prison, the physics-defying wire-fu, the training montages, the epic chopstick battle, the blank kung fu manuscript with its hidden meaning, the 点脉 techniques, and the hero ultimately unlocking his incredible hidden potential... these are all kung fu staples! Am I overstating it if I said that Kung Fu Panda had instilled a whole new appreciation in old school kung-fu flicks in the present generation of kids? It certainly reignited my passion, I can tell you.

Speaking also of the first film, the decision to do it with anthropomorphic cutesy animals is perhaps its greatest claim to originality, and one which I believe to be under-appreciated considering well it incorporated the physical attributes and creature behaviour into its characters. Tigress fought using the Shaolin Shandong black tiger fist, for example, and likewise the rest of the Furious Five practice the styles of kung fu which was historically inspired by the movements of their own species. It was said that originality is innovation rather than invention, and the Kung Fu Panda films are excellent demonstrations of that maxim, and the filmmakers' commitment to their chosen innovation is astounding. Pay attention to how the villain of the second film, Shen (an albino peafowl) struts, and the running gag involving the Soothsayer's caprine habit of chewing on the garments of others - they are what made this franchise such an immersive experience. Even outright talking animal comedies like DreamWork's other franchise, Madagascar, did not show such a strong eye for details.

If you haven't seen it, go do that. The 3D quality is somewhere between How to Train Your Dragon and Megamind - make of that what you will. The review will be spoilerific from this point on, because Papa needs to gush. No, seriously. I'm going to spoil everything.

Jack Black being Crushed by po
Jack Black is the voice of Po.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is a natural escalation which stayed true to the genre it tries to represent, and it takes Po out from the Valley of Peace to the greater China out there. In the final battle between Po and Tai Lung in the first film, Po's comical style of improvisational fighting is very reminiscent of Tai Chi Chuan (at least the sort I've seen in Tai Chi films such as Jet Li's 1993's Tai Chi Master) with its clever reversals and redirection of forces. It makes perfect sense that the sequel would be a spiritualistic Tao-finding journey with whatever epiphany Po achieves being his key to triumph in the climax - yes, I've seen kung fu films with almost the exact same plot. While the trailer played coy with the threat that Po and co. will face in Kung Fu Panda 2, the fact that it's a weapon that "stops kung fu" and is supposedly capable of bringing the whole of China down to its knees should instantly bring to mind something gunpowder related - a plot element confirmed within the film's prologue. Fictional magic Tai Chi is perfect for combating such weaponry, donchu know?

As a young peafowl lordling, Shen (voiced by the incomparable Gary Oldman), experiments with and finds devastating uses for the gunpowder aside from making fireworks. A prophecy foretold that because of his "wickedness" (let's not question the film's morality judgments here), he will be stopped by "a warrior of black and white". At this moment in the narrative, I knew for certain that I was watching Tai Chi Panda - particularly when the Yin-Yang symbol wafted on-screen. In response, the very-white Shen and his army of wolves rampaged across the Middle Kingdom and slew all the not-so-white pandas he could find, cleverly evoking the Holocaust and referencing the endangered species status Po's species have in the real world. It is also an example of one of the oldest tropes in the book: the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.

In Kung Fu Panda 2, the question of Po's ancestry is finally broached (spoiler: the goose is not his real father!), and his subsequent struggle with his repressed Past provides the key inner conflict Po must overcome. "Who am I?" he asks himself existentially and Jack Black, surprising me, managed to pull off the angst. But I was ultimately glad that the pathos did not completely consume the entire movie. In my opinion, it managed to achieve that golden balance between lightheartedness and heartwarming that Pixar perfected in their films. I don't remember ever tearing up watching a DreamWorks animated feature before now, and I would never have suspected that the bumbling stepfather of Po, Mr. Ping (James Hong) - essentially a comic relief character from his webbed feet up - could carry such a strongly emotional narrative. Even Shen's parallel arc concerning his parents had its moving moments.

Come to think of it, Tai Lung had serious daddy issues too, and with the revelation that Po's real father is still alive, I foresee more of the same in the future of the franchise.

Po and the Furious Five
From left to: Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Po,
Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross).

Kung Fu Panda 2 also expanded the film's mythology by showing in-universe renowned kung fu masters outside of Po's monastery and valley like Master Thundering Rhino (Vincent Garber), Master Storming Ox (David Haysbert) and Master Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) though their moments were criminally brief. I wished that Shen had actually brought his weapon across China defeating masters after masters just so I can meet them and see them show their quality. Perhaps, we'll get an even broader look in the next film (which is almost a sure-thing thanks to DreamWorks' propensity to milk a cash cow till it becomes Shrek the Third). I am certainly not ready to leave Po's animated World of Wuxia just yet. It's a masterpiece of world-building we rarely encounter these days.

While Shen is supposedly less skilled than most of the characters in a straight fight, he nevertheless had some really sweet moves - particularly at the start when he recaptured his ancestral pagoda home from the three masters. That scene was just so incredibly choreographed and the way he uses his tail feathers to distract and mislead was simply awesome. I had insane expectations that his final showdown with Po would blow my brain right out of my eye sockets, but unfortunately, I was setting myself up for disappointment.

Even so, the Kung Fu Panda 2 certainly did not end as anticlimactically as the first Ip Man film. No, it really paid its due with three huge showdowns between the heroes and Shen. The first one was so epic that I half-thought that it would end right there but boy, the third and final set-piece really blew that right out of the water (the pun is an accident, I swear). In between, they even managed to slip in a scene paying homage to how broken kung fu heroes in movies are frequently rescued and nursed back to health by an eccentric hermit which will either provide new kung fu moves, crucial information or motivation to continue the fight. Michelle Yeoh fills this role here as the Soothsayer, just as she did in Yuen Woo Ping's True Legend (which is definitely a poorer kung fu flick compared to this one).

If the first Kung Fu Panda's trite kids' film lesson is to believe in yourself, then the second movie teaches children that what matters isn't who you are or where you came from. It's what you choose to do. I wouldn't have believed it but Kung Fu Panda 2 is one of the very rare films which manage to give that overused chestnut a ring of truth. This year, Pixar's entry would be their sequel to Cars (which I liked but did not love). Dare I say that 2011 would be the year DreamWorks might actually win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature? They are due for it anyway since the last time they bagged it was a whole decade ago with Shrek.

Lastly, Baby Po! Oh my Gourd, he was so cute! Girls will be squeeing about him non-stop for months to come. I can already hear my girlfriend begging me to get her a Baby Po plush toy.

Likes kung fu fighting,
k0k s3n w4i


mg said...

is ur car number wgs 2***? i think i was behind ur car today just after the traffic lights at the new jusco :P

Phoebs said...

i totally love baby po!! T____T the movie was awesome. hehe. i don't think they'd have a po plushie :(

k0k s3n w4i said...

mg: yeah, that was me. i was picking elaine up from melaka sentral :)

po: what rubbish. they have adult po plush toys! why not baby po?

Liz said...

I just watched Kungfu Panda 2 and OMG OMG OMG it was really awesomeeeeee. I totally skipped part of this post before I watched it cos I didn't want to spoil it for myself. And gorsh, I really enjoyed this movie. It was fast-paced, action-packed (those kungfu scenes were actually really awesome, and even Shen's moves were pretty cool with his hidden blades and all :P) and it was funny as hell ! I laughed so much xD Anddddd there were touching moments where I actually teared up. Like, reallyyyy teared up. Twice, I think.

Everything in one movie. BEST movie I've watched so far. Super duper AWESOMEEEEE. I've been asking everyone to go watch it :D