See the full post for complete details, but spoiler alert—I discuss plot and action details of the film.
I'm going to start writing about this movie's specifics in about 20 seconds and if you don't want to know more about the movie than you want to know when you see it for the first time, i.e., you want a "pristine" viewing (as if such a thing were even possible), stop reading at the end of this sentence when I tell you that I enjoyed this movie and recommend that you see it. Jack Black is marvelous.
STOP. Really. (Or don't whine at me later.)
Lately, for reasons too involved and convoluted to explain in a short post (or even a long post), I've been rating everything according to the "fun factor" involved. So going on Saturday to buy new air conditioners so I could sit here today (Tuesday) in cool comfort as it tops 90 (which would make running the computer problematic) was rated at a "fun factor 6-7." It was followed by dinner at Cafe Latte: "fun factor 10." (Yes, because cake was involved!)
It was preceded by Kung Fu Panda II, in 3D, "fun factor 8." The movie loses some points because of the pushy gutwrenching assault on the senses and emotions when Po's mother leaves her son in a raddish basket and leads the maurading, homicidal,wolf army away. She pauses to attract attention, scarf or clothing whipping in the wintery storm. She can't look back, she gives no tell to his location. She is a mere silhouette of desperation on the horizon of Po's recovered-memory landscape.
OK I was sobbing. Much to the puzzlement of the 7-year-olds surrounding me (and their adults). (Which actually led me to wonder afterward, "Why weren't they sobbing?")
This scene of maternal sacrifice ranks way up there in over-the-top-pulling-on-the-heartstrings gambits we get in animation. Don't even get me started about the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3! Po's memory scene ranks immediately below a caged Dumbo's mom singing to and rocking…
I can't even finish that sentence. Let's move on shall we?
Because of the parting scene of Po's mom I'll never be able to watch Kung Fu Panda 2 again. But I don't regret watching it once, in fact I recommend it.
It is visually beautiful in a way that departs from other current animation (3D or not). The stylization moves away from the "realistic." We aren't trying to see all the hairs on Po, or any animal for that matter, or the feathers on Mr. Ping or Stork. The style moves in the direction of something "old" at the same time it feels new. In some ways it is nonsensical to try to write about this. Of course the visuals create the world in a film, especially in an animation. All I can say is that in each of the different drawing styles used in this film (a fable told as backstory; dream and memory sequences; and the main action) a complete world is created that feels substantial, if imaginary. The animators are bringing fable to life.
A good part of the "reality" of this world is due to the voice of Michelle Yeoh who as the Soothsayer sucks us in while narrating the fabulous backstory. (And I'm using "fabulous" there in both the sense of the incredible and the sense of fables.)
The other actors too bring great skill to their voice work. With little to say in much of the movie David Cross and Seth Rogen nevertheless make the most of short throw-away lines. Dustin Hoffman, as Po's mentor the red panda Shifu, brings his curmudgeon character to life with more than a dash of affection in the timbre of his voice. And as for affection, James Hong uses his voice to create the scatterbrained and loveable Mr. Ping (Po's adoptive father) while skating successfully on the edge of goofiness and melodrama. (More tears from Roz!)
I wish Master Rhino, voiced by Victor Garber, didn't have to die. Gary Oldman as the villainous peacock Shen, oozes frustration and bitterness. He provides the perfect complement to the positivity of the hero. Only Angelina Jolie's Tigress seems stiffer than her character needs to be. There is something thin and insubstantial in her voice when it is divorced from the 3D of her actual lips.
Together these voices all pull us into Po's world. And once we are in that world there is an abundance of intricate architecture and landscape, little details of life, and of course action, to delight the eye. (I have no idea how this movie will read flat, but I have to say that in the dimensional world of a foundry or a landscape of pointed rooftops 3D comes in awfully handy. See it on a large screen in 3D while you can.)
Much of this movie seems to be a lesson in free falling with a bit of control. In this way it is a perfect outgrowth of the kung-fu movies where fighters float from rooftop to rooftop and battle at the tops of bamboo groves. Those live action movies actually make this animation believable, even normal.
One of the great joys in this movie is the manner in which the kung-fu masters (6 now that Po is the Dragon Warrior) work together to exploit the fighting strengths of each other, and help Po, who has a big heart and some real skills, but let's face it, isn't weightless; though he is light in the "making plans" department. Much of the movie is an extended riff on camaraderie and working together.
Everything is breathtakingly choreographed—even the collapse and destruction of buildings. My only complaint on that score is that sometimes the action seemed to go too fast. I would have liked to have been able to savor so many of the seconds flitting past.
The story was also telegraphed too completely. But given that it is an entertainment for children I can accept that. It's just that when you have the invention of the cannon and a villain bent on pointing said cannons right at kung-fu masters and you follow that scene almost immediately with Shifu dancing with a water droplet—well you know exactly what Po will be doing in the final climactic scene.
As in life the journey is what matters, and this one is full of interest, delight, and a lot of humor. Jack Black has done something stunning. He becomes Po. We believe in his strengths, we believe in his delusions, we believe in his heart. Po finally knows who he is.
There you have it, fun factor 8 (points off for making me sob and for telegraphing too easily). Go see it. Take a hanky.