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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

Directors: Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni
Release Date: January 23, 2016
Rating: ★★★ ½
Review:

Kung Fu Panda 2’ had suggested a background story for Po, an extermination of all Pandas by the evil peacock Lord Shen. So, it would have been logical to expand this story line in ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’.

And indeed, this is the movie in which Po finally meets more pandas, not to say even his very own family. And yet, virtually nothing is done with the plot elements of ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’. Po’s natural father pops up in Po’s village, virtually out of nothing – there’s no quest whatsoever.

Instead, ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ introduces a completely new background story, involving the spirit realm, and introducing Po’s most powerful opponent thus far, master Oogway’s former friend, the bull Kai. Kai returns from the spirit world to the mortal world, creating havoc and changing all kung fu masters into his own mindless army of jade. And being immortal he’s a tough one to take. It’s up to Po to fight off this formidable foe.

Despite this splendid super villain, ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ is quite a disappointing sequel, stretching the all too American dream-like messages of ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘if you want to, you can achieve everything’ way beyond believability. Po’s transition of his lazy, food-loving parent village into a gang of fearless fighters, able to battle the greatest kung fu masters of China, in only a matter of days, is stretching the imagination, to say the least. Traditional wuxia cinema emphasizes that true mastery only comes with hard and long training, but in the American Kung Fu Panda universe, you get it for free if you only believe in yourself. If only. One wonders what entered the makers’ minds to send off a phony message like that.

Unfortunately, there are more story problems. There’s an all too obligate break up scene, when Po’s father appears to have lied to Po. Moreover, for a village that is supposed to be secretly hidden, the Panda settlement is found surprisingly easily by both Tigress and Kai. And the story line of the pandas having forgotten how to use Qi, only to remaster that in an instant, is, again, quite unconvincing. True, Po never was an entirely convincing character, but he certainly isn’t in this film.

Meanwhile, Po’s former co-stars are reduced to minor players, uttering only a few lines, if any, while none of the new players, save Kai, show the same charm. Only Po’s duck father, Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong) thrives as the jealous father.

No, the main attraction of ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ is not its story, or its characters, but its design. The film makes great use of wuxia imaging, including gravity defying runs and jumps. Even better, the feature at times becomes surprisingly graphical: for example, the film occasionally uses the split screen to a great effect, Oogway’s story is rendered in gorgeous 2D, and the learning sequence employs a bold and very beautiful color scheme.

In addition, ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ is noteworthy for introducing the utterly Chinese concept of Qi to Western audiences. Qi roughly translates as ‘life energy’ and forms the central theme of the film, making ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ an interesting blend of Western (the individualistic tropes stated above) and Eastern concepts. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feeling that there could have been more to ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’, and that it in fact is more run-of-the-mill than the film could have been.

Watch the trailer for ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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