2011. 91 minutes. Rated PG
“My son saved China – you, too, can save! Buy one dumpling, get one free! “
Should I assume you have already seen the original Kung Fu Panda (2008)? Hmmmm…just in case you haven’t, here’s a quick synopsis. Some time in the future (it could be the past, but the future seems more likely), China is entirely populated by talking animals who act like humans. The Furious Five are a group of awesome kung fu fighters (a mantis, monkey, tiger, crane and viper), defending the village and surrounding area. A search is on for the fabled Dragon Warrior of prophecy and everyone is surprised when it turns out to be Po (voiced by Jack Black), a rotund panda with a prodigious appetite. Of course, Po must be trained and must win the respect of the Furious Five, but naturally, his weaknesses are his strengths, yadda yadda, and all ends happily.
In Kung Fu Panda 2, all is well until a gang of wolves arrive at the village, plundering all metal items. The Furious Five and Po show up to foil them, but Po is suddenly distracted by a symbol on the armor of one of the wolves. It sparks a memory of his forgotten childhood and he learns his father, a goose who runs a noodle shop in town (voiced by James Hong), is not his real father. Po was adopted. (Shocker!)Meanwhile, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) sends the gang off to Gongman City when news comes that Shen the evil peacock(Gary Oldman, of course. Outside of Harry Potter, has he EVER played a good guy?) has created a weapon that can stop kung fu. Hence the need for all that metal. The Furious Five and Po set off for a showdown with Shen, but the one wrinkle is Shen knows what happened to Po’s real family. Po needs to know the truth before Shen is defeated once and for all.
The first Kung Fu Panda movie was entertaining. It was funny, it had a lot of action, it had very typical training montages, it had the hopeless good guy figuring out what he needed to at the right moment. But I think Kung Fu Panda 2 is actually a better film. It has an emotional resonance that the first did not. Po’s preoccupation with discovering his origins feels real, and his ability to accept who he is and what is important is a great lesson. The concept of what creates a family and how it can hurt or help you is the central theme to this film. It also concentrates on the concept of inner peace. Now, I don’t know how many movies you’ve seen lately, never mind ones for kids, that deal with finding inner peace. Let’s just say I don’t find it that common a theme.
Yes, the movie relies on stock scriptwriting around the idea of introducing a bad guy (misunderstood by his parents) who is beaten by the good guys against all odds. I was comparing the storyline to Harry Potter in some points–the big bad guy hears a prophecy and decides to get rid of his possible enemies before they become enemies. Sound familiar??? The charm in the film is provided by turning some of that stock writing into a joke. At one point, Po is trying to talk trash to Shen, but he’s too far away to hear him properly. The scene is hilarious as Po’s words fade in and out and Shen keeps saying, “What? What?” There’s a wonderful goat soothsayer character (Michelle Yeoh) that keeps humorlessly predicting Shen’s demise while attempting to get him to change his ways as she chews the edge of his robe (she’s a goat, after all).You may get distracted by how predictable the plot is for you, a seasoned film-goer, but mainly, you aren’t going to mind. When Tigress tells Po’s father, “He’ll be back quicker than you can say noodles” you know that Mr. Ping is going to softly say a moment after they are gone, “Noodles.” But the moment is still sweet, not cloying.
The fights scenes are fabulous. They are inventive, and to someone like myself, who has spent many hours watching Hong Kong kung fu films, they are satisfying. (Jackie Chan, by the way, voices the character of Monkey. Monkey isn’t half as cool as Chan is in any of his films, but you can’t have everything. It isn’t as if you can have Monkey start acting out Drunken Master).
The movie weighs in at just 91 minutes, which is a perfect length for the intended audience of children. If I go to see a live action film meant for grown ups that is only an hour and a half, I tend to feel cheated, but kids don’t have the same attention span. And when you can put together a movie that has all the required parts and packs an emotional punch as well in that short a period, I give it a thumbs up. The ending leaves an opening for a third film in the franchise. I wouldn’t be surprised if they create a third, and I, for one, would be interested in seeing where the story goes.
Kung Fu Panda 2 won’t be on my list of best animated films for children ever. However, it will make my list of highly watchable, funny films with the added bonus of character growth. Parents and caregivers, do yourself a favor and put Kung Fu Panda 2 in the rotation of watched and rewatched videos. You won’t regret it.