- Written by
- Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
- Directed by
- Alessandro Carloni, Jennifer Yuh
- Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, J.K. Simmons
The Hollywood studios bet the store on franchises these days, seeking to activate intellectual property rather than tell stories. As yet another piece of IP disguised as a movie series, Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda isn't half-bad, actually.
The bumbling central character, a panda named Po voiced by the inimitable Jack Black, is strong; the concept of the master-warrior-despite-himself is funny; the animation is consistently impressive and often highly original; and the inclusion of various Chinese cultural forms is sensitive and smart.
Kung Fu Panda 2 was one of my son's early experiences in a cinema and both generations were well-satisfied. He liked the friendly characters and the fast-paced action; I particularly appreciated the way Asian approaches to perspective were incorporated into some of the larger scenes, and thought the animation on the final credits, which imitated Chinese brush painting, deserved a prize.
So, from a sympathetic perspective, let me say that sequel No. 3 shows how difficult it is to keep these franchises fresh while remaining true to their initial charm.
This time out, an increasingly complacent Po is confronted by two challenging characters. The first is his biological father, Li – another roly-poly sweetheart of a guy, voiced by Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame, in the kind of casting against type that delights the parents. The second is a large and villainous yak named Kai – unfortunately, J.K. Simmons's voice work here sounds too ordinary to be truly scary – who steals the chi of all Po's comrades.
That's a problem because, in this not-entirely-comprehensible narrative universe created by writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, when your chi is stolen, you wind up as an ugly piece of green jade on Kai's belt. So, that lovely all-star voice cast – Angelina Jolie as Tigress, Seth Rogen as Mantis, Lucy Liu as Viper, Jackie Chan as Monkey and Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu – is silenced for much of the movie.
Instead, we get pandas, more and more of them, rolling down hills, bouncing off hammocks and slurping up noodles as Li introduces Po to his home village. They are cute, and they are cloying – especially the googly-eyed Mei Mei, a flirtatious ribbon dancer drawn like a Kewpie doll and voiced by Kate Hudson to provide a sickly hint of romantic interest for Po. Pandas, pandas, pandas; they are black and white and a big mistake.
The charm of Po is his sore-thumb status in a village of barnyard animals; one joke that doesn't wear thin here is his warm relationship with his comically anxious adoptive dad, the noodle-shop owner Mr. Ping – a goose both literally and figuratively, nicely voiced by James Hong as the stereotypical doting Chinese parent.
The story of Po's reunion with his birth father has emotional potential but, in truth, the richest reaction here is that of the wounded adoptive parent Ping, to whom Po is so wonderfully special. Surround the special guy with dozens of other tumbling pandas, however, and he begins to seem a lot less interesting. As does the story, which rapidly descends into rather predictable saviour-complex stuff as Kai attacks the panda village.
The animation is still strong – there are some interesting and refreshingly uncuddly depictions of the spirit world from whence Kai springs – but, mainly, KFP3 is too much of a good thing.
That said, my son, now turning 12 and convinced his mother is a professional hater, liked it just fine. Still, I don't imagine we'll be around when Dreamworks, which has promised a six-movie series, offers us KFP4.