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Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Release date:
May 26, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★★½
Review:

‘Kung Fu Panda’ (2008) was a nice if not too outstanding film, so it came as a pleasant surprise that its successor was even a better film. In fact, I crown ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ one of the best animated sequels ever, on par with ‘Toy Story 2’ (1999) and ‘Shrek 2’ (2004).

‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ te film immediately grabs attention with a Lord of the Rings-like introduction, rendered in gorgeous 2D animation, making clever use of cut-out techniques to simulate a shadow play. This sequence introduces the film’s villain, Lord Shen, a white peacock and one of the most layered villains one can find in animated film. Masterly voiced by Gary Oldman, in fact Lord Shen is comparable with other great villains like Saruman, with whom he shares a fortress full of furnaces, and Darth Vader, who also massacred the hero’s kin before the start of the film.

This background story also gives extra and necessary weight to the character of Po, who becomes more dimensional than in the first film, now having to battle the ghosts from the past inside his head, which clearly hinders him in finding the ‘inner peace’ Master Shifu tells him to seek. Moreover, we now have a background story for our hero. Indeed, the film end with a clear invitation to a sequel. Indeed, there would be a ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ in which Po’s story was round up, if rather disappointingly.

Because of this deepening of Po’s character, ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’, much more than its predecessor, is a delightful combination of adventure, action, comedy, and drama (Po’s reminiscence scene is actually moving). Moreover, ‘Kung Fu Panda’ shares a theme with the classic wuxia movie ‘Once Upon a Time in China’ (1991) exploring the tensions between kung fu and firearms. In this respect Po delivers the movie’s best line when addressing two demoralized kung fu masters: “you stay in your prison of fear with bars made of hopelessness and all you get are three square meals a day of shame!”. Not that ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ long dwells on Po’s inner turmoil, the film is very action-rich: the first great kung fu battle comes quickly, and is followed by several others, ending with a spectacular finale.

Overall, ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ is an impressive piece of teamwork. Everything clicks in this film: the story is engaging and well-told, the animation is outstanding, especially the character animation on Po, Po’s dad, and Lord Shen. The cinematography is breathtaking, full of dynamic camera movements and fast cutting, the color schemes are daring and beautiful, and the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer & John Powell, with its mock-Chinese ingredients, very apt for both the action and the emotions involve. Their music during the paper dragon scene must get especially mention.

Not that ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ is entirely without its flaws, however. By now Po has become nearly invincible, which renders him slightly flatter, despite the deepening of his emotional side. Moreover, the other characters are less prominent than in the first film (especially Master Shifu hardly gets any screen time), even if they still shine much more than in ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’, which reduces the five to mere background players. Then there’s an obligate ‘all is lost’ moment, so typical for modern Western computer animation films (see e.g., ‘Rango’ from the same year and ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!’ from a year later) and a scene in which the villain says ‘What?!’, replicated by the same studio in ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ (2014). But these are minor defects of an otherwise great piece of animated entertainment.

Watch the trailer for ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Gore Verbsinki
Release Date: April 3, 2011
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

One of the most original mainstream feature films to come out of the United States in the 2010s was ‘Rango’, a Western with desert animals.

‘Rango’ was the brainchild of director and co-producer Gore Verbinski, a live action director of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ fame. The film was made at Paramount, which hadn’t had an animation studio of its own since the closure of the Paramount Cartoon Studio in 1967. In fact, the animation was essentially done at Industrial Light & Magic, supervised by Hal Hickel. Apparently, Paramount gave Verbinski a lot of freedom, because ‘Rango’ is a pretty quirky movie, boasting an original visual style and none too serious storytelling.

Star of this original Western is a pet Chameleon (Johnny Depp) with a lot of fantasy, who accidentally ends up in the Mojave Desert, where he poses as some kind of Western hero called Rango, prompting the villagers to appoint him as a much-needed sheriff. Rango then has to solve an aquatic crime, which he does cluelessly, but with much bravado.

The first thing that strikes ‘Rango’ as different from all other American computer animated films, is its surprisingly gritty visual style. Rango himself, for example, has a crooked neck and an asymmetrical head, while his love interest Beans is a lizard, whose curls do not hide the fact that she’s clearly a reptile. One of the villains, Gila monster Bad Bill looks particularly rough, while the mayor, a tortoise, looks uncannily like actor Fred MacMurray. Another curious addition is ‘the spirit of the West’, who looks like an aged version of Clint Eastwood’s ‘man with no name’ persona. The whole film breaths spaghetti western, especially in its cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s musical score.

‘Rango’ doesn’t really deviate from the familiar story lines of current American animated features, however. For example, there’s an ‘all hope is lost’ moment, a familiar trope in the 2000s and 2010s, but the story is unpredictable enough to entertain throughout. Moreover, apart from a unique visual style, the film boasts some off-the-wall story devices, like a band of mariachi owls, who bridge several scenes, frequently predicting the chameleon is going to die.

Although the crime plot is played with seriousness, the film never loses sight of its own silliness. There are some peculiar touches, like Rango talking to a halved armadillo, or Beans suddenly freezing mid-sentence. Much of the dialogue is delightfully funny, and there are plenty of references to Western cinema, as well as one to ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ (1998), which also starred Johnny Depp.

Despite the silliness, the film boasts surprisingly high production values. The animation, the cinematography, the rendering and the soundtrack are all of a fine quality. The film’s scruffy look may not appeal to everyone, but is a welcome diversion from the mainstream.

‘Rango’ was such a commercial and critical success, even winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature that Paramount was confident to create its own animation studio, releasing its first feature, ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water’. Nevertheless, until now the studio has failed to carve out a unique spot in the crowded feature animation field. It at least never again released such a quirky movie like ‘Rango’.

Watch the trailer for ‘Rango’ yourself and tell met what you think:

‘Rango’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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