every year around this time alarmists will have some articles about how many sequels/remakes/reboots there are during the summer blockbuster season. and then there will be the inevitable comments like “hollywood has finally run out of ideas!” these same people probably have the attention span of a michael bay movie, since they repeat the same thing summer after summer. they also seem to forget that most studios make most of their annual profit in the summer. and the fact that people keep showing up to pay money to see them. without these summer blockbusters, studios probably won’t be able to, or less willing to, throw money at psuedo-intelligent psuedo-artsy blockbusters like inception or social network. sequels, like remakes, or 3D, or cgi is simply a concept or a description without any positive or negative connotations. while i agree that there are more bad ones than good in all those concepts, if they end up the level of kung fu panda 2, i say, bring on those 3D sequels to the remakes.
while it received decent reviews, i, like most people, liked and pretty soon had forgotten about kung fu panda 1. it unfortunately came out just a month before pixar’s wall-e. it did well at the box office but it didn’t do shrek or pixar numbers. it’s appropriate since it was a pretty run of the mill story that managed to be entertaining throughout but doesn’t leave much afterwards. the only other movie nominated for best animated film that year was bolt, with john “man animal” travolta and miley “skanktana” cyrus.
with the ordinary character introductions plot points out of the way in the first movie, kung fu panda 2 begins somewhat confusingly with a prologue that seemingly has nothing to do with any of the characters in the first movie. narrated by michelle yeoh as the oracle, it introduces us to the villain shen, voiced by gary oldman. the first panda we see in the movie is not po, the jack black character, but instead, an action figure of po, who’s now a hero in his village as one of the dragon warriors. though he knows the moves, his sifu dustin hoffman, tells him about inner peace. instead of simply physicality, inner peace is more of a state of mind. which i’m sure martial artists can tell you that it’s as important, if not more so, than physical moves. a main plot point in the movie is that po’s quest for his origin after finally realized that father goose is not his actual father.
like most good sequels, kung fu panda 2 builds from the first movie and expand its scope. it’s also a lot more subtle and layered than the first movie and most animated films(and that’s including pixar). this time the story focuses more on po, and his relationship with his father(james hong) and tigress(angelina jolie). most of the other characters from the first movie has essentially been demoted to sidekick roles (jackie chan, seth rogen, david cross, lucy liu, dustin hoffman) while the new characters(jean claude van damme, dennis haysbert, victor garber other than michelle yeoh’s oracle amount to more or less cameos. instead of simply inspired by martial arts, the sequel adds a second layer of eastern philosophy that makes it deeper than its predecessor.
po’s quest for his parentage, when eventually revealed and done through a different style of animation in flashbacks, has more to do with repressed memories and psychologically rather than having a secondary character telling him what happened. in a disney movie(the message is also more complicated here than the aesop fables ripoff in most disney movies), no doubt he would have met a cute animal character recounting things to him. the oracle character at first seems to be playing that role but turns out she’s only there to guide and inspire him to recall his childhood.
gary oldman’s villain is also more interesting than he first appears. at first he seems like your typical action movie/bond villain whose goal is to destroy china/the world/martial arts. but he has his own parent issue as well. his plan is to collect enough fireworks and metal to create enough cannons to destroy. so we have the technology/machine vs. the hand-to-hand dragon warriors. in action movie context, i see it as the cgi/any actor can do kung fu vs. the real martial artists doing real stunts. i don’t think it’s a coincidence that the villain is a peacock. flashy technology vs. the authentic old school style. the drunken master jackie chan vs. the medallion jackie chan. once upon a time in china jet li vs the one jet li.
it’s also no coincidence that the above symbol appears throughout the movie. usually in black and white, like pandas, the theme of duality/black & white is a major one. as mentioned, the peacock, just like po, also has parental issues. what’s important is how we deal with the past. we could be bitter about it and grow hateful and cynical, or we can deal with it and be enlightened. you don’t see that in many kids animated movies.
kung fu panda 2 takes a darker tone overall than the first movie, with subtexts and symbols and emotions bubbling under throughout the whole movie, instead of inserting them awkwardly as in toy story 3 or up. there are fewer slapsticks than the first movie though there are still some. i couldn’t help but wish that they have gotten rid of those altogether and get back to the main dark plot point. but still, there are some chuckles for the kids. the action sequences is more elaborate than the first one. it took full advantage of it being animated and reminds me of some of the prime jackie chan/jet li stunt sequences. except more outrageous.
i am also glad that they got rid of the original title: kung fu panda 2: the kaboom of doom. or that nonsense ska2oosh promotional poster. those things does not go with the story at all. leave the stupid titles to the fa and the fu series.
i don’t know if it’s the marketing and trailers and my own expections (or the crappy summer kids movies trailers* before the movie) but i did not foresee a deep dark movie out of kung fu panda 2. the kids in the theatres laughed quite a bit more than i did. and i’m sure the adults in the audience were more involve with the emotional resonance of the story than the jokes. unlike most overrated and more popular animated films, kung fu panda 2 thankfully omits the pop soundtrack and pop culture references to entice grown ups or cheap jokes for the kids. instead, it lets the story lead the way and never gets distracted. it’s what the matrix sequels would have been if they had combined them into one movie with more focus (the final fight is a more disciplined version of the neo vs. agent smith fight in the matrix revolutions). i guess, as some critics have  , one could compare it to the empire strikes back, if you like that kind of thing. as opposed to empire, i never felt bored and on the verge of falling asleep during kung fu panda 2.
with the stong script and animation, kung fu panda 2 works without the 3D. the 3D though, in a rare instance, is actually worth the extra few dollars. it still seems as bright and colorful in 3D as in 2D, instead of a waste of those few dollars like toy story 3. unlike avatar, it also doesn’t sacrifice filmic languages for the sake of showing off 3D effects.
as far as animated films go, it’s the closest hollywood has gotten to miyazaki level and it’s the best 3D movie i have seen(granted, there’s been less than five) though not so much because of the 3D effects. it’s the second best animated film i have ever seen. it’s just a tad below wall-e and my neighbor totoro but way above the first kung fu panda and the entire toy story series. with this year’s pixar movie being cars 2, kung fu panda 2 is a pretty sure bet to be nominated for best animated film of the year. even the end credit of pimping of the next entry works better than the last three marvel movies. it’s the perfect father’s day movie. too bad the masses seem to prefer the same shit different day sequel that opened the same day as kung fu panda 2.
*the trailers were judy mood and the not bummer summer(which received quite a few groans from the audience), cars 2 in 3D (where larry the cable guy is the main feature), mr. popper’s penguins (ace ventura what?), the smurfs in 3D, and the spielberg/peter jackson sure to be overrated tintin.