It’s time to get in touch with your inner panda. No, that doesn’t mean munching on bamboo leaves and looking shocked at your baby on Youtube videos, but it does mean that you all should be watching Kung Fu Panda 2. Really, go do it. Now. It should still be showing, probably in 2D this early in the afternoon, but if you miss that then it’s fine because you can still catch it in 3D later in the day, as I did. Is it worth the 3D? Well, the fur stands out a little more, and the cannonballs will be thrown right at your face but aside from that barrage, I can’t really see the justification other than trying to squeeze a few more bucks out of the parents taking their children to see it.
Seriously though, this isn’t really a film for children. Partly because of the subject matter and partly because the wealth of allusions that will go over even most adult heads. On terms of the subject matter, the film isn’t like Shrek or Madagascar. Yes the heroes in those movies undergo perilous situations, but neither franchise has a film that starts with the death of all pandas. Maybe that’s a spoiler, although it seemed pretty implied from the first film since Po lives with his father the Goose that the pandas weren’t around anymore. It’d have been a nice environmental tie in to say they’d all just sort of gone the way of the Dodo, but actually no, a Peacock has killed them all. This is where the film is a lot darker than many of its Dreamwork counterparts, and differs from Pixar classics such as Toy Story; unlike those, the film deals with darker material immediately, rather than subtly and with tact. We’re given a Chinese puppet theatre of a Peacock and a bunch of wolves or hyenas committing the genocide of all Pandas, a incident of Po’s childhood so traumatic that he’s actually completely blocked the entire thing out until he sees a symbol on the shoulder of the one of the wolves that reminds him of the terrible tragedy in his past. From this he is launched into a quest to save both Martial Arts and China, while finding himself along the way.
It’s the rest of the film which is very much about coming to terms with suffering, especially past suffering, and the fact that tragedy does not have to rule your life, which saves the film from being entirely dark and depressing, but make no mistake; this is not an easy ride for Po. The film builds upon the concept of inner peace, introduced in the first film by Shifu in relation to his hardened emotional stance after having a previous pupil use the techniques he was taught for power rather than peace. Peace and happiness and the struggle to achieve them are fundamental to Kung Fu Panda 2. While the first one, behind the fighting pandas and evil leopards, was very much about special talent coming from within and that one man’s way of doing something does not suit every one, the second film is more about who you choose to be. Shifu is correct that Po becoming the dragon warrior was a tragedy for him, because he only saw the dragon warrior as what he thought a dragon warrior should be, and in this film, Po is faced with a similar tragedy, the personal revelation of who he is which is only a tragedy because of who he thought he was. He then has a choice; to be consumed with anger and revenge, or let it go to embrace peace and happiness instead? As dark as this film is, it’s geared for children, so we can all guess how it goes, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome while doing it. This is a very good sequel. It isn’t forced at all, but builds upon what we already knew from the first film, and explored areas of the characters which had only previously been implied.
Aside from the above, the effectiveness of the Furious Five also stood out in this film. In the original film, the Furious Five attempted to stop Tai Lung, but ultimately failed where Po would succeed. The film made it quite clear that only Po could stop Tai Lung, but the second film, for all the talk of the destined black and white warrior, the Furious Five come rather close to bringing Lord Shen’s plan down around him, literally. Po’s obsession with the past and what happened to his parents actually prevents the Furious Five from being as effective as they should have been, and it’s nice to see a main character with flaws that actually affect the plot, as flaws really should. Of course it comes down to Po and Lord Shen eventually, but Po doesn’t get there without a little bit of help from those around him, and he can’t win by relying on old tricks.
If a Panda and a Peacock fighting over China doesn’t interest you, then perhaps the homage to Wuxia films and Chinese myth and legend will. The Furious Five are obviously drawn from the Five Animals Kung Fu, probably most widely known by people outside of China as the style employed by Lei Wulong in the Tekken game series. Interestingly they use the alternative collection, and gave Leopard to Tai Lung. It remains to be seen whether dragon will play a part or if its presence is long gone. Why however Jackie Chan is playing the monkey rather than some drunken baboon is beyond me though, but I suppose he’s just glad to be in a film celebrating the Wuxia film, his most successful being The Forbidden Kingdom, although for more comedic tones Drunken Master and Police Story are brilliant too. It’s nice to see Michelle Yeoh involved too as the Sooth Sayer, bringing in the allusion to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and I’ll be sorely disappointed if there isn’t a third film with either Jet Li, Tony Jaa or Zhang Ziyi involved. Tying the film to Chinese tradition are of course the use of fireworks, scenes constantly decorated with Chinese lions and the aforementioned use of Chinese puppetry as well as animation. It’s these details that really make the film stand out against other films aimed at children. It would have been easy to make a film with fighting animals with a bit of humour and not really try, but not only is the film not afraid to deal with rather dark subject matter, but it really does the homework on Chinese myth and culture that interesting for children and fans of eastern culture. Those fans will also be glad to see Taoism and Buddhism presented without being really disrespectful to the culture that bore it, so it really is nice to see a film that not only appreciates the subject matter, but treats it with respect, which is rare in film these days.
All in all, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a good film, and it’s certainly an improvement upon the first, so I’d be happy to see the series continue, and I’d certainly recommend that anyone who likes Martial Arts, eastern culture, Jack Black or even if you’re just looking to keep the kids entertained for an hour and a half, that this is certainly a film with seeing. If nothing else, it’ll keep them subdued until Cars 2…