Kung Fu Panda 2: Stuffed-toy Story

Posted on May 28, 2011

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When movies began to be more than just photographed stage plays, when they began to distinguish themselves through editing and photographic techniques and came to be considered worthy of being “reviewed,” like the older arts, and when the august occupation of film criticism was announced, who could have imagined that practitioners of the profession would find themselves, one day, attempting to analyse a story with a stuffed toy for a protagonist? Had the crucible of cinema not been stirred by Griffith and Chaplin and instead by Pixar and Dreamworks, I’d probably be employed elsewhere – more gainfully, I would imagine, and certainly someplace with a lot more sunshine – and if I still had intentions of being a serious critic, I’d have had to pack my bags for someplace with a thriving theatre scene, where, like a surgeon with a scalpel, I’d have dissected my way through Ibsen and Chekhov while dismissing film as a colourful diversion for easily distracted children, a blockbuster babysitter.

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If this sounds like I’m biting the hand that feeds me, it’s just a fleeting frustration with today’s cinema, whose egalitarian model of distribution is at once boon and bane. This allows me to review the latest and most lustrous from Hollywood at the same time as every other critic in the world. You cannot do that with theatre, whose creators and critics, however effulgent, are doomed to shine only in local skies. But on the other hand, the films that receive simultaneous worldwide release – the ones that, well, panda to large audiences – are the ones that do not exactly warrant “reviewing.” This is the crisis the critic faces every summer, held captive by sequels and superhero sagas. There’s plenty to write on. But what do you write about? You could, of course, make the reverse argument for the latter part of the year, when we are glutted with glum dramas whose jaws are clenched with the determination to deposit cast and crew on the Oscar podium, and when we begin to yearn for a little light entertainment – you know, like those frothy summer movies. But at least for the reviewer, there’s meat to chew on.

The only meat in Kung Fu Panda 2 is on the person of Po (voiced, once again, by Jack Black). With every ounce of cleverness expended on the action sequences – bright and brisk, yet overly reminiscent of Spielbergian set pieces from a time summer movies used to set their sights a lot higher – the lesson-heavy dramatic portions are deplorably undernourished. In the first film, Po learnt that he could be whatever he believed himself to be. Here, after realising that he’s been adopted (he’s not exactly the brightest of bulbs, given that his father is a goose), he learns that your parents aren’t necessarily the ones who birthed you but the ones that brought you up. This wisdom comes about as Po faces the evil Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), who murdered his father and mother (or so we think, until the end opens up possibilities for a second sequel). Shen is this film’s triumph. Whoever thought of a peacock as a villain had the right idea – this is a vain creature with plumage that flows like a royal robe and crowned with a crest. It’s no surprise he wants to rule China. You might also conclude that he wants to penetrate her defenses with his rather phallic cannon, one whose size he’s mightily proud of, but that’s just the restless critic in me raising his annoyingly analytical head. Go back to sleep, silly little man. I’ll let you know when summer has set.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema: English