by Jim Tudor, May 26, 2011 4:01 AM

While once venerable film genres such as dramas and romantic comedies have been falling short for years, the one-time bottom-of-the-barrel filmic arena of the family film has risen to the top of the heap in terms of all-around accomplishment. Take the "Kung Fu Panda" films, for example. Fifteen or so years ago, the franchise title alone would've told you all you needed to know. Odds are it would've been a half-baked series of subpar Don Bluth animated films that no parent in their right mind would want to actually sit through it. How times have changed. In this day and age, the current crops of animated films are major cinematic affairs, spanning the demographic ranges of gender, age, ethnicity, and whatever else separates vast people groups. They are rendered in eye-popping computer animated 3-D, and feature the type of high-end celebrity vocal talent (whether the talent is appropriately cast or not) that appeals squarely to the non-children in the audience. More importantly, in the better efforts, the writing is legitimately sharp, witty, smart, and appealing in a way that most live action films are lacking.

Although I have been one of the loudest and most consistent proponents of Pixar as the crown jewel of computer animated storytelling and filmmaking, I must admit that certain challengers to the throne are looking more and more dignified all the time. Blue Sky Studios, makers of the "Ice Age" films, took a major technical leap forward with the predictable but nonetheless likeable "Rio" earlier this year. And now, Dreamworks Animation, home of the now burned-out "Shrek" series, is re-emerging from their recent quality slump with the "Kung Fu Panda" series.

When the first "Kung Fu Panda", arrived in the summer of 2008, it squared-off against Pixar's lofty message film "Wall-E". As a broad martial arts period comedy/talking animal film and Jack Black vehicle, it was easy to dismiss "Kung Fu Panda" at first glance. As a matter of fact, I admit that's exactly what I did. It wasn't until the movie hit the inexpensive local second run theater that I finally succumbed to the lingering positive critical and audience buzz it had been generating all summer long, and quickly conceded that it trumped the pompously cute yet heavy "Wall-E" as best CG animated feature of the summer.

For those who missed out, "Kung Fu Panda" is the story of an adopted, portly panda bear with self-esteem issues named Po (Jack Black). Set in an ancient China populated wholly by humanized talking animals, Po eventually overcomes insurmountable odds to take his place as an unlikely kung fu champion and hero - a far cry from his former humble existence in his father's noodle shop. What the film admittedly lacks in overall originality (in this age of constant super hero films and comic book movies, this is yet another zero-to-hero origin story) it more than makes up for in spark and vibrancy.

The makers of "Kung Fu Panda 2", particularly director Jennifer Yuh, have clearly gone to great effort to maintain the said spark and vibrancy of the first. With the venerable Guillermo Del Toro on board as a creative consultant and executive producer, it may come as no surprise that this first sequel effectively probes deeper into Po's emerging hero's journey and personal issues, evoking a truly fulfilling Campbellian archetype, but also remains fully viable as mainstream entertainment suitable for all ages. Yes, there is still an array of fat jokes at Po's expansive expense, and the overblown, overlong list of celebrity vocal talent is even longer this time around (just off the top of my head, the film co-stars Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogan, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Danny McBride... the list goes on and on). And maybe Jack Black's once-novel "hardcore" shtick is sounding a bit passed its prime, but the film wins out in the end. It is a solid effort that evokes not only some good laughs and thrills, but maybe even a tear or two. Along with Po, we learn more of his mysterious early years, fleshing out a classic hero's origin that modern audiences may associate various portions of with Superman and Spider-Man, among others.

In the story, an evil razor-feathered peacock with super-villain aspirations of ruling China channels the destructive capabilities of fireworks in his power play to overthrow the reigning hierarchy. Meanwhile Po, the still-new Dragon Warrior, is dividing his time between collaborating with the dynamic Furious Five (clever animal actualizations of the five animal fighting styles of certain martial arts), and his father's noodle shop. Just as he begins to question the authenticity of his birth to his goose father (he's yet to learn he's been adopted. Po may be the affable Dragon Warrior, but he's still not the sharpest tool in the shed), his martial arts master informs him that the time has come for the next phase of this training: mastering inner peace.

Talk about bad timing - just as Po learns the world-shattering truth of his adoption, he must mobilize against the tyrannical peacock and his minions to save China - and only through inner peace can he find victory. But inner peace is a far hope and nothing but an abstract concept for our pudgy protagonist. His struggle, through the lens of movie metaphor, is a legitimate and entirely relatable one. Like certain Pixar offerings, the film is not afraid to veer into territory that may be considered perhaps emotionally challenging, and that is completely to its credit.

"Kung Fu Panda 2", although it does bear a message (one that it isn't afraid to outright detail for the benefit of any younger and more dense viewers), it's not at all the usual patronizing refrain of "follow your heart" (gag!) or "love conquers all" (zzzz). The movie works as not only a family entertainment, but also as action spectacle and even a bit of epic mythmaking. It's also the funniest comedy of the summer so far (Sorry, "Hangover Part II"). While it's possible that Jack Black may've worn out his welcome with general audiences ("Gulliver's Travels", anyone?), "Kung Fu Panda" still has plenty of kick, and part two definitely brings the hardcore fireworks.

- Jim Tudor

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>> "In this day and age, the current crops of animated films are major cinematic affairs, spanning the demographic ranges of gender, age, ethnicity, and whatever else separates vast people groups."

To me that feels like a nice way of saying they all cater to the greatest common denominator. Apart from the fact that I simply don't like the humor presented in these films, I hate that they degrade animation to a fixed format, instead of acknowledging that it's just another form of cinematic expression.


Yes, but you don't like Pixar so that gives you a rather unique voice in this debate.

"Blockbusters", "Crowdpleasers" and "Pandering to the lowest common denominator" are not always the same thing, and I agree with Jim that these cgi-animated films are far higher on the overall quality-scale than you'd expect from looking at the non-animated family films.

'And quickly conceded that it trumped the pompously cute yet heavy "Wall-E" as best CG animated feature of the summer.'

Hahaha, oh wow. 'fraid I had to disregard the review after reading that.


Opinions differ on both. I consider neither to be as overrated as "Up", and both are pretty awesome, making it hard to pick one as the winner.

To me if it were the first 20 minutes of Wall-E up against KFP I'd agree with you. But as whole films, I thought KFP was better, even if I generally agreed with the social statements of Wall-E, I found once it got to the humans the spark waned considerably.

I've found Dreamworks to have considerably upped their game as in my opinion How to Train you Dragon is plainly better than TS3.


Jack Black actually does some of his best work as a panda. The humour is a bit tiresome for me too, but the rest of it is quite spectacular. It is true what you say Jim, they do some some surprisingly epic mythmaking in here. Oogway the wise turtle master in the first film is quite the memorable character, for instance. The action is perfect, maybe the most exiting cinematic martial art ever, and that is quite an achievement for animated films with animals. And Jim, you didn't even really mention the beauty of the scenery and the character designs. As somebody else said, it could make the Shaw brothers positively drool.

I'm going tomorrow. Can't wait. Here's a funny review from a Finnish film reviewer attempting to write in English. I think he likes it.



Very funny, very awful. Looks like it was written by a pretentious boor writing while drunk and translating it with some cheap software. It makes even the other review of KFPanda on this site look good.

In my opinion a movie full of action and very funny in particular places
(I have a movie blog called www.voyageinmovies.blogspot.com)

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