Putting the awe in ‘awesome’
(Kung Fu Panda 2, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, US, 2011, 90 mins)
[Warning: A couple of minor spoilers]
Jack Black is one of the sturdy pillars to the temple of comedy, starring in the hilarious School of Rock (2003), and despite the less entertaining Gulliver’s Travels (2010), he still has the capability of making adults chuckle when he’s behind the animated fuzzy face of an ass-kicking panda. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who was the story artist for Kung Fu Panda (2008), has made the transition from pure comedy to adding a dash of seriousness, informing younger audiences on some simple life long lessons. Kung Fu Panda 2 follows the Furious Five; Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu) and the Dragon Warrior Po (Jack Black), who has fully adjusted to his role, a position which renders him the protector of the Valley of Peace. Through a determined journey of self-discovery, Po is more concerned with finding his origins and real family, but must also defeat Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a villainous peacock who has created a new weapon to destroy China and Kung Fu altogether.
Regardless of his new responsibilities, Po is just as graceless and hungry as he was in the first film, suggesting that Nelson was fond of his traits and that familiarity is certainly important, especially with a three year gap since the first film. Kung Fu Panda 2 contains plenty of references to the Chinese culture; the buildings, the food, their costumes, and even in the soundtrack, which was produced by Hans Zimmer and John Powell, who also composed the score for Happy Feet (2006) and Shrek (2001). The characters use their surroundings as a source of rhythm, setting the pace of action in a fun and hastened way, emphasising their skills in Kung Fu and the importance of working together, a talent which the children in the audience should take note of.
Mr Ping (James Hong), as Po’s adoptive father, still makes noodles a very big part of Po’s life back at his home, where Po is considered a celebrity. The relationship between Ping and Po is genuinely heart-breaking, and Ping’s hesitance to accept that Po wants to find his biological parents is stomach turning as he tries to change the subject matter and have Po remain a big part in his life. The film could be a comment on childhood problems, a theme which executive producer Guillermo del Toro has focused on in many of his films (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone). In addition to this, the endangerment of pandas themselves is a strong theme, as Shen destroys all pandas when it is predicted that ‘a warrior of black and white’ will kill him. This is a particularly sombre topic to illustrate in a children’s movie,but is portrayed in the lightest possible way.
You would never think a peacock could look so sinister, but with Lord Shen’s lavishing fanned out tail, he can be very intimidating as the pattern it creates is a link to Po’s forgotten past. A variety of animated techniques allow the past to be presented as though it were in a crisp comic book, with rough sketches which are splashed with dangerous shades of red. These parts of the film make it more sentimental than Kung Fu Panda, particularly towards the end when Po has flashbacks and discovers what happened to him. Even the beginning of the film is beautifully animated, as we are told plainly the story of how Shen became the antagonist and fought against his parents. In some scenes it does feel as though the settings have been focused on more artistically than the characters themselves, and it is a shame that with such big names in the credits such as Jolie and Hoffman, who plays Po’s teacher Shifu, that the Furious Five become neglected and undeveloped.
The prospect of romance is imminent for the next film; the subtle scenes between Po and Tigress suggest that it’s more than Kung Fu that’s on their minds. Kung Fu Panda 3 should be on the cards with the surprising ending of Kung Fu Panda 2, allowing a refreshed narrative and the promise of some new faces. The choreography of the fighting by Rodolphe Guenoden is exceptional and intense, giving a spirited feel, particularly as the film climaxes in a harbour where it seems like Po has no other choice but to sacrifice himself. The film is scattered with memorable Po-type language (Skadoosh!), and even though Jack Black may not be lapping up in the success from his latest films, his panda certainly is. The Kung Fu Panda series is looking to be the next Shrek phenomenon, it has moments of adult humour but will it be discarded to one side by children before you can say “noodles”?