May 26, 2011

“KUNG FU PANDA 2” – Black Belt

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Worth A Ticket; This franchise has been working out.
Over the past few years, DreamWorks Animation has been emerging a bit from its place as the jokey, insubstantial sidekick to Pixar’s superhero studio.  How To Train Your Dragon was a thoroughly enjoyable surprise, and even though Megamind had its share of pop culture parody, it also managed a real story and heart.  The first Kung Fu Panda was less impressive, built on lovely visuals but mostly serving as a vehicle for Jack Black’s pudgy cartoon charm, but the new KUNG FU PANDA 2 aims higher and succeeds, a relatively serious adventure movie with more pressing emotional stakes and some impressive action chops. 

The villain this time is a sinister peacock, and let’s face it, despite his more sympathetic recent roles in the Harry Potter and Dark Knight series, nobody does sinister villains like Gary Oldman.  His Lord Shen has figured out how to turn fireworks into explosives, and has invented the first cannons, which he’s now planning to use to take over all of medieval China.  More evil still, he’s been told by a soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh) that he’ll one day be defeated by a panda, so he’s disposed of all the pandas in China–with one conspicuous exception, of course.   Naturally Po (Black) and his fellow warriors (various animals with the voices of Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogan, Jackie Chan, David Cross, and Lucy Liu), not to mention Po’s master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) are dispatched to save the day.  Lord Shen’s secret weapon, though, is that he also holds the key of what happened to Po’s panda parents, and how he ended up raised by a goose (James Hong), so Po will have to prove he can absorb this knowledge and still be a hero.  (A final scene setting up the next sequel lets us know there are more revelations to come.)
The script by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who also wrote the first film, this time doesn’t linger on Po’s cuteness, instead giving the character some melancholy and (metaphorical) weight.  Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s direction has scale and she keeps the story pushing forward at a steady pace; there are live-action directors this season who could benefit from a look at her comprehensible, fast-moving combat sequences. Even the 3D is top drawer, although inevitably you have to give up some image brightness in exchange; there are lots of swooping falls and flights, and plenty of objects reaching into the foreground of the image.  One particularly nice visual touch is that when Po has fragmentary flashbacks of his past, those sequences are rendered as hand-drawn animation, rather than computer-generated.  The vocal cast also does a fine job:  in addition to Oldman’s reliable villainy, Black manages not to push too hard, as does Hoffman, and Jolie gets the most to do among the supporting cast.  
Kung Fu Panda 2 certainly isn’t in a league with the truly superb animated films we’ve been privileged to see over the past decade like Up and Ratatouille and the Toy Story series; Pixar, at its best, makes giant hits that are also works of art.  But Panda 2 is a solid piece of entertainment that doesn’t pander (sorry) to its young audience or cause pain to adults, and as the trailers for upcoming family movies make clear (The Smurfs?  Really?), that’s no small accomplishment.
(KUNG FU PANDA 2 – DreamWorks Animation/Paramount – PG – 92 minutes – Director:  Jennifer Yuh Nelson – Script:  Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger – Cast:  Jack Black, Gary Oldman, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Jackie Chan, James Hong – Wide Release)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."