Kung Fu Panda was one of the best films of 2008; it is one of the best films of the last decade. I was unsatisfied by the film only in the respect that I wanted more, and I wanted it now. Three years isn’t a terribly long time to wait for a sequel, and I’m very disappointed that the box office receipts for Kung Fu Panda 2 are not encouraging — it’s a hit, but it is not going to be a blockbuster, even when it finally turns a profit. It’s getting trounced by The Hangover Part II, the X-Men prequel, and (in terms of cost-profit ratio) the Judd Apatow-produced Bridesmaids. A third movie may happen, but expectations will be considerably diminished, which is a shame, because Kung Fu Panda 2 is every bit as good as its predecessor, and it succeeds in the key element that distinguishes all great sequels: the characters continue to grow.
Plus: there’s buttloads of sweet martial arts action!
Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson has said that she took inspiration from old school Hong Kong flicks, and it shows. As in the first film, the action is exuberant and elastic, taking advantage of the animated format, sacrificing some of the precision and clarity of the classic kung fu comedies in favor of sheer kineticism. The spirit of those films, however, is clearly present. Jackie Chan is once again bereft of dialogue (as is virtually everyone else in the Furious Five, except, of course, Angelina Jolie), but the sensibility he brought to the forefront of HK cinema in the 80s is evident in the set pieces, such as a rickshaw chase through the streets and across the rooftops of a gloriously-rendered ancient capitol, and especially in a relatively brief sequence in which Po fights to break Master Ox out of prison, while Master Ox fights to stay in. Almost every scene is ripe for at least one semi-outlandish gag or pregnant with the possibility of a skirmish, and this constant suspense is maintained by the tight rein Nelson and her editors keep on the pacing.
Overall, the craft of the film demonstrates a thorough grasp of Po’s dramatic arc both in this particular film and from the first to the second. You could say that this is a typical effort to make a “darker, grittier” sequel. Most of the film is soaked in ember red and satin shadows — a volcanic color scheme, perfectly fitting the themes of death and the way we must learn to accept new emotional terrain shaped by tragedy. But it also demonstrates how that terrain can be more verdant and fecund in the shadow of a past tragedy. Appropriately, the first throwdown takes place at sunset, just before the onset of the darkness; the climactic confrontation begins in the dark of night, and ends at sunrise. The filmmakers are so in tune with the themes of cyclical acceptance and perseverance in the blackest moments that even when they drop a storm into Po’s most emotionally wrenching moment, instead of feeling like a bathetic cliche, Nelson and the writers turn it into a moment of genuine serenity, a oneness with the environment and a comfort with the ritual of genre convention.
True to the study of martial arts, Po did not reach his apex by becoming the Dragon Warrior. He continues the long path to perfection. He is not allowed to remain in developmental stasis. Instead, he dredges up his origins, coming to terms with the fact that he was an orphan adopted by his father, Ping. We find out in the course of the film that Po’s entire village was reportedly wiped out by Prince Shen, who took a page out of the King Laius playbook. A soothsayer predicted that he would be stopped by a panda, so he took it upon himself to destroy all the pandas. Since Po survived and was raised in the village next to the monastery where he later learned martial arts, he returns as the Dragon Warrior and — as prophecy would have it — stands in Shen’s way. Shen is not presented as a true foil or opponent for Po; he’s a martial artist, but he’s more of a catalyst than an antagonist. Shen’s crime against Po’s biological family is the real antagonist that Po must overcome, and it forms the major crisis in the film: Po’s quest for inner peace.
Kung Fu Panda 2’s conception of good and evil is deceptively sophisticated. Shen’s flaw (a la Laius) is that he seals his Fate by trying to change it. Po’s flaw (a la Oedipus) is that he chains himself to the trauma of the truth. By seeking it, he elevates it beyond its real station. The difference is that while Shen blinds himself to his fate by actively pursuing the path that leads to it, Po accepts the truth rather than attempting to blot it out. He does not let it define him the way that Shen does. It’s a question of character. Evil is consonant with fear of the truth, while Good is consonant with acceptance of it, no matter how harsh it is. Accepting the reality of something you desperately don’t want to believe is good, while rejecting reality in favor of fanatical self-determination is evil. Shen is undoubtedly a villain, but one of his own making, of conscious choice, rather than a narratively easy construct of “Evil,” a character who exists simply so the hero has someone to defeat.
In the course of his self-discovery, of course, Po rediscovers the love he has for his father, Ping, and Ping’s love for him. The film’s treatment of adoption is sensitive and convincing. Other critics have taken issue with the film’s final shot, in which we see (SPOILERS!) that Po’s biological father, along with much of his village, actually survived Shen’s attempted genocide. As the elder Po declares, rapturously, “My son is alive!” it’s hard to escape the sense that the film is setting up a sequel as well as blunting the impact of the previous revelation of Shen’s campaign. As if having a “Bambi moment” is no longer acceptable in 21st century children’s entertainment. (Anybody out there remember the controversy surround Mufasa’s murder as recently as 1994?) I tend to agree that the final revelation of his village’s survival is poorly handled, but only in terms of narrative construction. Had it been hinted earlier that some of his family had survived, the last shot wouldn’t feel so cheap. As it is, its existence makes thematic sense. Once Po finally accepts that the father-son love with Ping is genuine, it affirms the filial love of his biological family, who would want him to be happy, and at one with himself. That sacrifice is only meaningful if Po accepts his adoptive family, which he does. So Ping is his real father, and his biological father is his real father. Balance and symmetry. Love prevails… if a bit hamfistedly.
Gary “EV-ER-Y-ONE!” Oldman has played quite a few loveless villains in the past — most notably in Leon, but also in Tony Scott’s awful contribution to BMW’s “The Hire” series, in which he played the gaudiest-yet incarnation of Satan — and in Shen we find the miracle of modern typecasting. If Shen wasn’t designed with Oldman in mind, then it is a testament to the sensitivity of the animators and the intuition of the casting director that Shen is a fully-realized performance. In animation, the matching of voice-to-character is no less tricky than finding the perfect person to play a certain part in a live-action film. But in live-action filmmaking, even with makeup and special effects considered, a performance is still bound to the specific physicality of the actor. No such limitations exist in animation. An overweight fortysomething can play an athletic 20-year-old, and a grown woman can play a small boy. And it works. But even with that flexibility, you often find examples of casting choices that don’t quite work.
Angelina Jolie returns as Tigress, one of the few supporting characters with a substantial pile of dialogue and character development. Her performance is fine. The problem with it is that, ever since Robin Williams was cast as the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, the lead roles in mainstream films have been dominated by A-list stars. While not a problem in itself, it minimizes the elasticity of the casting choices. In the past, professional voice actors weren’t necessarily familiar by sight to audiences. Viewers did not associate a certain persona or repertoire of physical inflections with the sound of a voice. By casting familiar, live-action faces in animated roles, a certain cognitive dissonance sets in if the physicality of the animated character is not consistent with the physicality of the real-world actor. One of the assets a star has is bringing a certain weight of audience expectations and history to his or her new roles. When we watch Tom Hanks as a gangster in Road to Perdition, his emotional distance at the breakfast table and the viciousness of his violence are doubly shocking, because when we see his face, we think of the lovable goofball in 80s comedies like Big or Dragnet, or perhaps the dignified everyman in 90s/00s films like Saving Private Ryan or Cast Away. Similarly, Jolie has cultivated a range of modes, from vulnerable sensuality (Gia) to dangerous sensuality (Mr. & Mrs. Smith) to privileged housewife-done-wrong (The Good Shepherd).
She’s versatile and magnetic, and those are huge reasons why she can headline summer action films and artier, wintertime Oscar bait. But I have never seen her do her icy action queen bit without a hint of irony, without an acknowledgement of her sexuality. Tigress, on the other hand, is completely neutered. She’s a pal. She’s emotionally withdrawn, and despite the fact that she’s the leading “tough guy” — the Lee Marvin, if you will — of the Furious Five, she inevitably finds herself in the position of having to be rescued. In other words, Tigress is strong… for a woman.
Which is precisely the kind of role Jolie tends to disdain, or at least perform with some sort of acknowledgment of the hoops that narrative necessity makes her jump through. The way Tigress is “performed” by the animators, though, is with an entirely straight face. She can easily defeat Po, the hero, but she cannot defeat the villain, Shen (or Tai Lung); only Po can defeat the villain. So she’s too strong for the hero, but too weak for the villain, who is too strong for her, but too weak for the hero. Tigress is basically there to show the audience how far Po has progressed. She’s part of the background, and if there’s one thing Jolie never is, it’s part of the background. That’s why so many people hate her as a screen presence. She’s so strident that she’s almost overwhelming. But there is an undeniable essence to her physical presence that is simply missing from Tigress, and that’s because Jolie is, in a word, miscast. There’s just a dissonance between the role as performed visually and the role as performed aurally.
By contrast, every quiver of the eyelid, every shoulder hunch, every dude-gone-crazy glare that Shen gives his subordinates, the way his body trembles when he cackles with evil glee: it’s vintage Oldman. Oldman is not capable of performing the martial arts of Shen (cartoon physics being what they are), but there is absolutely no separation between the visual performance of Shen and the aural performance of Oldman. It really is Gary Oldman as a malignant peacock. It’s an amazing performance that required dozens of people working in concert. The same goes for Po. Jack Black could not be better cast, and, as in the first film, the exuberant blend of pratfalls and spurts of awe-inspiring grace is exactly the kind of antics you’d expect of Black in a live-action role. The surprising depths of sensitivity he layers into his vocal delivery may even be greater than anything he’s ever done, because Nelson and her army of animators contextualize his oversized performance with a magnificently rendered world popping with unearthly colors and angles — the kind of fantasy land Black’s characters live in inside their heads, but which we never get to see. Here, we see it in all its glory, and it is a world of breathtaking beauty and, often, disarming beats of quiet clarity.
Mixing artistic styles, a la the first film, Nelson ties Kung Fu Panda 2 more directly to a sort of Chinese-Western synthesis of influences by opening with a prologue told in the form of a shadow play; later on, Po’s flashbacks to the razing of his village are in the form of traditional, hand-drawn animation. All of these visual techniques were probably achieved by computer, but harnessing their aesthetic potential is an expansion of the standard lexicon of CG animated features, which are typically loath to remind audiences that animated films didn’t always look like this. It occurred to me that Kung Fu Panda 2 might be the first time the youngest members of the young audience might have seen these styles employed in a theatrically-released feature. Rather than supplant traditional techniques or stubbornly adhere to them exclusively in reactionary fashion, the blending of styles in Kung Fu Panda 2 struck me as genuinely progressive. This is not avant-garde experimentation by any means, but it certainly demonstrates a more comprehensive, historically-rooted conception of the art of storytelling than most Hollywood films I’ve seen in the last few years. Just as Po fights to save his ancient martial art from the advance of destructive technology, Dreamworks Animation uses advanced technology to preserve ancient storytelling techniques.
From this grander vision spring little details, like the recurrence of the shadow play later on in the film at the beginning of the climax, as a shadow play performance is intruded upon by the ominous shadow of a boat’s demonic prow. Seconds later, as Shen’s terrifying parade floats by the window of two children playing, one of them tips over a toy boat: a foreshadowing of Shen’s fleet being upset by our heroes. In the space of about a minute, the art of montage has been used to imply the stakes (Shen’s advanced engines of war overshadowing ancient tradition) and the eventual victory (the destruction of those engines) by our heroes. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both of these brief scenes are forms of play. After all, Po’s approach to the world is dominantly childish, but it’s the sincere, childlike wonder injected into his interactions with his friends and the world around him that take this flawed film and make it miraculous. Like Po, the filmmakers are in love with the ideas, the possibilities, and the traditions that inform every digital frame of this film. They are using the most modern techniques to pay homage to the most potent, venerable traditions of storytelling, and they are having fun doing it. The development of the secondary characters may be a bit hackneyed, but even if they must submit to the demands of crafting a viable summer blockbuster, it heartens me that the overall impact is staggeringly positive. If this film is, indeed, the end of the Kung Fu Panda franchise as a feature film series, it seems appropriate to me that it should go extinct in the classiest way possible, imprinting upon the minds of its audience the fleet artistry of generations, compacted into the unlikely form of an animated HK martial arts flick. It can only contribute to the legend, and, in time, legends have a way of being more true than the yarns that wove them in the first place. ☕