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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Kung Fu Panda 2

  Kung Fu Panda 2 (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011

 Kung Fu Panda 2 is a cute, likable movie, done with a lot of skill and A-level talent, and with all the visual virtuosity we expect by now from big-budget cartoon features — especially from sequels to gigantic hits, like the first 2008 Kung Fu Panda from DreamWorks. But  Panda 2 didn’t connect with me, especially in the way the first film did. This one seemed sweet but stilted, spectacular but more muted, likable but more artificial. My mind wandered.

 That ’s no accurate gauge, of course, of how the core “Panda” audience (kids and parents) will react. I expect children will like it a lot, since it‘s mostly pitched to their key. But I had no trouble getting engaged by the first “Panda,“ and that enlarged appeal isn’t necessarily on tap here.

 The new movie is directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson (the storyboard artist on the first Panda) and it’s scripted by the original scenarists, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. All three, plus the usual crackerjack DreamWorks animation team, help return us to a magical cartoon realm that many audiences thoroughly enjoyed: that historical Chinese wonderland, derived partly from storybooks and Chinese martial arts period movies (Zhang Yimou’s The Curse of the Golden Flower and Hero, and Ching Siu-Tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story), where talking animals roamed and Jack Black put the voice and the sass into roly-poly panda and superhero-wannabe Po.

 In the original, Po was a nebbish who wanted to be a superhero, and, after some comical humiliation, he teamed up with the Furious Five — not Grandmaster Flash‘s old rap group but the first movie’s kung fu quintet of Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross), and went on quests and fought foes (including Ian McShane as the super-villainous snow leopard Tai Lung) and finally became the Dragon Warrior.

 Like many others, I was entertained and charmed by that original, with its unlikely panda hero and its delicate yet deep visual style — its look of Chinese scroll paintings mingled with choppy-socky action films, its likeably childish jokes (with the usual smart-assery from Black) and its puckishly assembled cast , which also included James Hong as Po’s goose of a father Mr. Ping and Dustin Hoffman as wise old Ratso — excuse me, Shifu.

 Most of that voice cast is back (McShane excepted), abetted this time by new additions vocalized by Michelle Yeoh (a soothsayer), Jean-Claude Van Damme (Master Croc), Dennis Haysbert (Master Storming Ox), Victor Garber (Master Thunder Rhino) and Danny McBride (Wolf Boss) — as well as a brand new sinister and sadistic villain, Gary Oldman as Lord Shen. Shen, done with every ounce of vanity and evil Oldman can muster, is a vicious peacock who wants to rule all China, has a new super-weapon to help him do it, and who, we gradually learn, played an undisclosed part in Po’s still obscure past.

 What happens afterwards is almost exactly what you’d expect — since, like the mega-mega-hit The Hangover 2, this movie tries to hew to the tried and usually true sequel formula of “The Same, but Bigger.” Still, the expanded cast means there’s even less screen time for The Furious Five, who, I thought, were somewhat short-changed in the first movie. And the filmmakers apparently have yet to decide on some romantic tnterest for Po, unless they’re brewing up something with Tigress, or more pandas pop up and get larger roles.

 None of this is offensive or boring, of course. Kung Fu Panda 2 is a movie that’s hard to dislike. It’s just not especially interesting, especially if you’re above the age of six. It’s a good-looking movie — director Yuh Nelson is a gifted artist and she has one wonderful flashback sequence in 2D, a showpiece that reminds us how unnecessary the 3D effects are here, once again. The movie has moments of tenderness and poignancy. It even has Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) as a creative consultant. But it’s not engaging and exciting in the way the first movie was. (I should mention that many critics so far disagree with me.)

 Maybe these projects get too top-heavy. If you’re going to do a big hit movie all over again, and yet also try to be innovative and fresh and bring new qualities to it, you may inevitably tighten up a little. You may lose some of the freedom-within-confinement, and the spontaneous but controlled flow of ideas that are the very essence of art — and probably of martial arts too.

 I’m not saying that Kung Fu Panda 2 should have been more of an “artistic project” — though both films are more artistically ambitious than most cartoons, or most movies. I’m saying it should have, could have been more fun — and not just for six-year-olds.

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One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: Kung Fu Panda 2”

  1. li-on says:

    I must see this movie


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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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