Friday, 6 February 2015

Kung Fu Panda 2: The Lack of Pandering

Kung Fu Panda 2 is a far better movie than any movie called Kung Fu Panda 2 has any right to be. In nearly every other example of a movie with such an obviously child-pandering title, you'd be totally justified in dismissing it as a terribly phoned-in animated children's movie.

I mean, the title seems like the laziest effort by film executives ever, just slapping two unrelated things together in order to sell merchandise to children. How did that pitch meeting even go?

Executive #1: We need a new animated movie to market towards kids, something just a little edgy but still safe enough their parents will let them watch it.
Executive #2: Hey, you know what kids love? Pandas. Everybody loves pandas.
Executive #1: Yes, pandas, right!
Executive #2: You know what else people love? Kung fu. Like Jackie Chan stuff where he fights off 5 guys with a noodle and some chopsticks.
Executive #1: Of course...
Executive #2: Well, how about we put them together. Like "Panda Kung Fu!"
Executive #1: I'm not sure...
Executive #2: No, wait, I got it. "Kung Fu Panda"! And the panda is voice by Jack Black! Oh! And his father is a goose!
Executive #1: Why a goose?
Executive #2: No reason!
Executive #1: Yes, I like it! Let's green light this baby

And so Kung Fu Panda was born...

Blizzard executives later latched onto the 'panda' part but added 'monk' because as everyone knows, pandas are synonymous with monks.

Now the first Kung Fu Panda was a surprisingly charming tale about a bumbling panda named Po who is chosen as the Dragon Warrior, and has to learn kung fu to face off a villainous snow leopard kung fu master who has broken free of his unbreakable prison.

In all honesty, I completely dismissed Kung Fu Panda when it came out. I thought it was gonna be a bland pandering children's animated film with little character development and shoehorned pop cultural references to appeal to adults forced to watch with their kids. I didn't watch it for ages since I saw no merit, or at least no appeal to me personally, in what I thought it was, since movies like that can sometimes be enjoyable (possibly maybe) but are mostly bland and forgettable.

I'm just gonna leave this up here...

But I was wrong and misjudged Kung Fu Panda unfairly. Not only was it a lot of fun, with memorable characters and numerous funny moments, but it was well-written with some decent character development and a solid narrative arc, that, although not amazingly original, was executed really well.

They also treated the kung fu with respect as though they put some real research into it and didn't just make stuff up with no consideration for the tradition of martial arts. Furthermore, the animation is fantastic, fast paced and colourful, giving the action sequences a real energy and sense of dynamism to them. And those action sequences are rather superbly choreographed with each of the Furious Five's different kung fu styles working together in clever and inventive ways, flowing perfectly.

There were even some poignant moments with real emotional weight. In a movie about a kung fu panda.

Tigress' back story is legitimately sad. I just want to hug her and tell her that it's okay.

However, as the Nostalgia Critic pointed out in his spot on review of the movie, the villain is kinda weak. Well, weak is a bit harsh. Maybe meh is a better. He's actually got a pretty good back story and the reasons for his villainy are quite fleshed out but as bad guys go, he's okay I guess. It might be only in comparison to the how likable and memorable the other characters are that he seems a letdown but he's a little bit of a letdown nevertheless.

That is not the case in Kung Fu Panda 2. Gary Oldman's Lord Shen is a fantastic villain. His design is gorgeous, with the seamless blend of metal armour plating on his talons and blades within his wings, flowing silk robe, and striking tail feathers. In line with bird physique, his movements are quick and balletic, offering an unique and interesting fighting style.

But even more than that, it is his personality, back story, and motivations which really shine and make him a truly great antagonist. Driven by a sense of perfectionism, he craved the praised of his parents but directed his talents in destructive means which was prophesied would lead to his defeat by a warrior of black and white.

Naturally, Shen decided to avoid that prophecy by killing the entire panda population because of course that was the most logical solution to that problem. He then goes back 'victorious' to his parents expecting their approval but instead finds banishment and brokenhearted parents.

"Did you see me, mom? Did you see me, dad? I annihilated an entire species! Did you see it?"

Denied his birthright and feeling betrayed by his parents, Shen spends years cultivating his revenge, building an army and developing a weapon which will destroy kung fu because he's evil and stuff. He also feels denied happiness, stating that happiness must be taken and he will take his, which is a fantastic line.

But not only is he a fully fleshed out and well designed villain, he has some really funny moments too with some excellent dialogue expertly delivered by Oldman which makes his character utterly memorable and iconic. Like the scene where he is practicing what he will say when he finally meets Po, rehearsing the same line with different delivery and changing the wording in order to be more menacing. It's great.

Aside from its amazing villain, Kung Fu Panda 2 tops the first movie for me in other ways as well. The animation is even more impressive and pretty, with utterly seamless and fluid action sequences which are beautifully choreographed. Just check out the first action scene of the movie where Po and the Furious Five fight off Shen's wolf army:



Even better though is the character development. Po's back story is fully fleshed out and instead of possibly undermining or demystifying the character, only serves to enrich his character and provides significant dramatic impetus to his narrative arc.

Furthermore, learning of his shared past with Shen, that Shen murdered his parents and wiped out his entire species, only builds up the drama and conflict between the two characters and leads to a thrilling and fitting climax.

There is more I could say about the film, like its touching subplot about Po's adoptive goose father worrying that Po won't love him anymore now that Po knows he isn't his son [um, spoilers, I guess?]. Or the way it conveys the philosophical teaches of martial arts maybe with even more respect and reverence than the first film. Or the fact that every side character gets a good line or two and doesn't feel wasted or bland like a cut out character. Or that the plot unfolds very naturally and never seems forced or contrived.

Or I could just say again that Kung Fu Panda 2 is a better movie than any movie called Kung Fu Panda 2 has any right to be.


References:

Kung Fu Panda Wikipedia page

Kung Fu Panda 2 Wikipedia page

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