Friday, May 27, 2011

'Kung-Fu Panda 2' Review - A Very Touching Sequel That Surpasses the Original

I know for many, Dreamworks' films are hit and miss. It's hard to deny, because for every Shrek there is a Shark Tale and Monsters vs Aliens. But over the last few years, Dreamworks has upped their output and started producing a few movies of Pixar quality. The first to really, really touch that void for me was 2008's Kung-Fu Panda. It was incredibly fun, smart, beautifully animated, and had a great cast that really brought life to their characters. So when a Kung-Fu Panda sequel was announced, I was excited by the news, but also very hesitant. Sequels are very, very tough to pull off sometimes, and Dreamworks was always very hit and miss with them in the past. Going in tonight I wasn't sure if I should lower my expectations so I wouldn't walk out completely disappointed by the movie. And I'm glad to say, I walked out very, very impressed with the movie and that I really, really loved it.

The film opens with  the tale of Lord Shen (Voiced by Gary Oldman) and how he became the villainous man, or in this case Peacock, in the movie. Obsessed with the power of gunpowder to further his selfish gains, he becomes blind with power. When he learns from a soothsayer that a Panda is destined to defeat him, he goes and kills all the pandas so the prophecy will never come true. Appalled by his actions, his parents banish him from the kingdom and he vows to return one day, with a vengeance. Many years later, Lord Shen does return, and it is up to Po (Voiced once again by Jack Black) and the Furious Five to save all of China, and Kung-Fu itself before Shen blows it up. But can Po learn to find his inner peace to save the day while dealing with flashbacks from his forgotten past? 

The plot may sound ridiculously basic, and yes it is. But it's not so much the plot as it is everything that takes place during the journey of the movie. This movie is much larger in scope then the first, and instead of retreading what happened in the first, this movie starts assuming you know the characters and the universe already. This is one of the best things for the movie, so we don't have to worry about unnecessary back tracking and we get to know Po more as a character and less as a goofy and lovable numskull. Po begins to have flashbacks throughout the film of a past he doesn't remember, and he begins to question who he is. It's a struggle for him, and his father as well, who is starting to realize Po may no longer accept him as being his father. Things like this are incredibly important to further the character and make them matured and fleshed out, and really made the movie excel. A scene in the middle of the movie where Po finally fully remembers what happened in the flashbacks is incredibly moving and heartbreaking, and I was actually in awe of how well they pulled it off in a kids movie. It's very dark, but they don't shy away from it. This is Pixar quality work, and I'm enjoying seeing Dreamworks moving closer to that quality of movies.

Another thing I love about this movie, and the first as well, is the love for martial arts and the Chinese culture. Instead of treating it as a joke, it's shown to be an incredibly elegant culture and how martial arts teaches one to find themselves. Which leads me to the martial arts and action to the film, it's incredible! This movie upped the quota from the first movie by going bigger and more exciting without going too far. The opening fight scene was very fun to watch as we get to see Po and all the different members of the Furious Five get a chance to shine as they fight a group of wolves that are ransacking a town. As the movie continues, the action gets bigger and more intense, including a fight scene inside a falling and burning building that is just breath taking to watch. I can honestly say I felt the characters were in danger during that scene and that is vitally important to me. So many movies you don't feel the fear of impending doom for the characters, but the writers and directors made sure to not shy a way from the fact that these characters are mortal and can get hurt. The final fight scene is just outstanding, and without giving much a way it was one seeing one man standing up against an army. 

But as serious as the movie is, there is still a lot of comedy as well. There is so much humor in sight gags, dialogue, and situations that it makes the movie that much more enjoyable. And much of the humor comes from the cast, mainly Jack Black, who I'm sure got a chance to ad lib many of the lines in the film and really make Po a very loving and hilarious character. Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross, and Angelina Jolie all returned to voice the Furious Five, and all have expanded roles in the film, but not hugely. The one who I would say got the most was Angelina Jolie as Tiger, who bonds a lot with Po over the course of the movie. They share two very touching scenes to show she really does care for him more than she lets on. But the standout in this movie is none other than Gary Oldman as Lord Shen, the villain of the film. Even in animated form he plays a bit of an over the top and crazy character, who is also menacing and dark. It was brilliant casting and without him, the movie would not be nearly as well done so I'm glad to see him as part of it.

And lastly, the animation is just gorgeous in this movie. Over the last three years, animation has come a long way and you can clearly see a difference between the first and second film. And for the first time, I loved the 3D in a movie. The animators took advantage of the fact they were making a 3D film and used it to to really better the film. The scene in the falling and burning tower half way through the movie really benefited from it, and added a sense of danger to the whole scene. You could just see how far the drop would be if a character fell or how high up the characters were when they were standing outside on the side of the building. Also, the music is very good in this movie, I look forward to getting the score. It was very sweeping and cool.

Kung-Fu Panda 2 joins the ranks of a select few sequels that is as good, if not better, than the original. By taking the movie and making it grander, but never losing sight of the characters and giving them more depth, the creators really show love for the series and the fans. This isn't some cheap cash grab, this is a real sequel that is very different from the original but never forgets its roots. If I had one complaint, it's that the movie isn't long enough. It clocks in at exactly ninety minutes, and could have used an extra ten minutes without dragging down the film. This really is a great film, and one of the my favorites of the year. It was incredibly well done, funny, heartwarming, and action packed and I hope we see a third soon, which won't be out of the question with the ending of the movie. In fact, if they don't make a sequel after the way the movie ended, I'll be pretty upset. They have a very great, and interesting way to go with the next sequel.Suffice to say, I loved this movie. 

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