Friday, June 17, 2011

Everybody's Still Kung-Fu Fighting

Okay, today's post SHOULD have been about the new Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, starring Owen Wilson as a man who falls in love with the French capital. It's been critically hailed as Allen's best directorial effort in years. So how did I go from that to seeing Kung Fu Panda 2? Sigh. I really have nobody to blame but myself. On Tuesday, when I had the choice of seeing either Paris or The Tree of Life, I chose the latter. My reasoning was that Allen's film had been enjoying some success; with Tree likely relegated to the limited release and indie theater circuit for the time being, and Paris getting more or less a wide release treatment, there was a better chance of Tree's showings winding down quickly, while Paris would get a little more time in the spotlight. So I decided to drag myself through Tree, thinking full well that a viewing of Midnight in Paris would be readily available only two days later, which was the next time I'd get the chance to head in town to the theater.


Turns out that in only two days everything changed. With my daily schedule only allowing me to see something in the mornings, I was upset to discover that the theater, which had been showing daily matinees of Midnight in Paris for the past couple of weeks, had NO morning showings on this particular Thursday. Dammit. So I was left with a conundrum. No backup plan, no interest in the latest rentals (heck, I saw most of them in the theater anyway), and very few options. Well, I did have one BIG option, but there was a reason I had been avoiding it. When the original Kung Fu Panda came out in June of 2008, it was critically acclaimed and exceeded all expectations when it came to the box office. It even broke box office records in China, becoming the first American-produced film to make over 100 million Yuan. Yet I ignored the film when it came out for two reasons; one, it looked like a kid movie, and not one that adults could really get into as well; the second reason is that I've never been a big fan of Jack Black, and anything featuring him in more than a supporting role I usually can write off completely. Still, an awards pedigree (the original was nominated for both the Golden Globe and Academy Award) plus a lack of real alternatives forced my hand, and for the second time this year (the first was Rango) I ventured into a theater where the median audience member age was less than would be legal to consume alcohol in Massachusetts.

Oh, that panda! He's so CRAZY!
The film begins with an opening montage that describes the backstory for the film's villain, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). Shen, an heir to the throne who was exiled due to some shockingly not-for-kids genocidal acts committed in the quest for power, has returned to his family's throne bearing a new weapon, one that threatens to destroy all of Kung Fu. Meanwhile, Dragon Warrior Po (Black) and his allies the Furious Five are asked to investigate the death of one of the greatest martial arts masters, and Shen and his secret weapon may be somehow involved. Additionally, Po learns that the goose Mr. Ping (James Hong) is not his biological father and searches for the answer to who he really is and who his parents were.

Semblematic to the amount of plot they tried to cram in there
It's this last part that actually generates the most interest for this film. While it was odd enough to think that a goose would have a panda son in the first film, this idea was mostly ignored, with the anthropomorphic element so in play that the question didn't even follow. With the revelation that Po was discovered and adopted, the story turns in parts to Po's identity and where he comes from, a sweet and subtle story that has him remembering bits and pieces of his childhood before he ended up in his adopted father's care, and seeking his original family out. While adoption stories are not infrequent plot threads, the execution here is one of the few shows of perfection the film possesses.

Yeah, yeah, we get it. The panda is crazy.
With that exception however, the rest of the film proves to be almost an almost complete mediocrity. Although there is one inventive fight scene early on that has the heroes battling in a village of musicians (and has some of the background music performed by a direct result of the action), much of the settings and story feel unoriginal and uninspired. The setup for the story is rushed and without surprise, and the whole thing would have benefited if we HADN'T been told the entire backstory up front. Even worse, the jokes fall flat, and most of the film slips between unfunny comedy and too-serious drama. Tack on less than spectacular visuals and you don't come up with a very entertained viewer.

About to take this franchise behind the shed to hide it from the children
One of the worst things an animated feature film can do is load itself down with celebrity voices, because hey, who cares if they'll never actually see the actors on screen? Sure, you can argue that you're getting the best people for the job by hiring Hollywood's elite, but your argument goes down the tubes when that "elite" talent does very little over the course of the film. Black is better than expected in a leading role, with Po easily being one of his deepest performances while still allowing him to retain his usual brand of laid-back enjoyment. And Gary Oldman is wonderfully malicious as Lord Shen, his presence perfectly voiced for the role. It's the rest of the cast that is either misused or overpaid, as Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Seth Rogen, and Dustin Hoffman having little to no character development, meaningless and unfunny dialogue, and more or less being paid top dollar for replacement level jobs. Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride, Dennis Haysbert and Jean-Claude Van Damme are other big names brought in whose talents are unrecognizable on screen and therefore unnecessary. Essentially it's money thrown out the window, and doesn't do the film any favors.

Those pesky Jehovah's Witnesses never learn...
Despite authentic appreciation for ancient Chinese customs and kung fu action films, there's not a whole lot to invest yourself in when it comes to Kung Fu Panda 2. Cheesy and unfunny dialogue and an average story mean that your first impression upon seeing trailers for this film were most likely spot on. Kids might get some fun out of it, thanks to second-grade physical humor, but rationally-thinking adults would probably be better off with a good book. Unless your children are begging, skip it.

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