I’ll say this for DreamWorks: when it latches on to a concept it doesn’t let it go.
I’ll say this for DreamWorks: when it latches on to a concept it doesn’t let it go. There have been four Shreks (with a spin-off, Puss in Boots, due in November), it’s preparing a third Madagascar, it has begun work on a sequel to How to Train Your Dragon and now this, Kung Fu Panda 2, and so should any of these films feel like more of the same, it’s probably because they are more of the same.
As it happens, I didn’t see the first Kung Fu Panda — God must have been feeling kindly towards me that week — but this still feels like more of the same. How does that work? I don’t know, but I’m hoping How Does That Work 2, released next summer, will answer that question unless I decide to leave the ending up in the air, in which case you’ll have to come back for How Does That Work 3, 4, 5 and 6, as well as the spin-off, Yes, That’s How It Worked and, Boy, Did We Work You. This has already been hailed by the New York Times as ‘a masterpiece of grinding a franchise right into the ground. Five stars.’
Actually, Kung Fu Panda, like many of these films, isn’t bad but it isn’t any good either. I’ll explain: it isn’t bad because the 3D animation is probably excellent, but it isn’t any good because the characters and narrative are so average. This is the trouble with 3D; it demands film-makers put spectacle above all else, even though spectacle is so forgettable, whereas top-class story-telling and characterisation are not. Does it matter if it’s a kiddie flick? Good point. Maybe not. But you can’t love a film like this; can’t love it in the way I, say, loved Jungle Book and Mary Poppins and still do. You can’t love it like those growing up today will love Toy Story, which hung on to its values, and the first Shrek. It also concludes with one of those therapy-speak life lessons which, in this instance, is: it’s not who you are, it’s who you choose to be. Really? I’d choose to be a very great opera star or prima ballerina but — you know what? — the real me gets in the way every time. Bitch!
So, Kung Fu Panda 2. OK, our hero is a roly-poly Panda (voiced by Jack Black) who is somehow also a kung fu expert and dragon master — why this is so was established in the first film, I’m guessing. He lives in ancient China, in the Valley of Peace, with an implausible group of anthropomorphised animal friends known collectively as the Furious Five and voiced by the usual suspects. They are: Tigress (Angelina Jolie); Monkey (Jackie Chan); Mantis (Seth Rogan); Viper (Lucy Liu); and Crane (David Cross).
The Panda, Po, has identity issues. Raised by a doting, noodle-shop-owning goose, it suddenly clicks: this is not my father. He also experiences flashbacks to a traumatic infancy. What does he remember exactly? But his more pressing problem, for now, is Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), an evil peacock who has already conducted a campaign of genocide against pandas, has just invented gunpowder and now plans to use his new weaponry to rule China and then the world. Yes, it’s our old friend: the baddie intent on global domination. Does he never get a day off? Or a spa mini-break?
The film lurches from action set-piece to action set piece as Po and the Furious Five fight it out with Lord Shen and Shen’s army of wolves. And while the animation may be terrific, with its bright palette, fizzing canons and scorching fireballs, I’ll be honest with you and say it just doesn’t interest me. Where is the humour? Where are what I call ‘the twiddly bits’, the incidentals that, if given sufficient care and attention, give a film its heart? Where, in short, is this film’s personality, or even the characters’ personalities, for that matter? Po is quite lovable and bouncy, I suppose. I’ll give you that, albeit grudgingly, but the Furious Five scarcely even register. They could be bags of flour. Plus, the whole thing ends with an outrageous act of revisionism included for one purpose and one purpose only: to set everything up for Kung Fu Panda 3. Ho hum. More of the same. If I were you, I’d dump the kids and go see Senna.