Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
June 2011

More of the same, and that's OK

'Kung Fu Panda 2' repeats the formula, but repeats it well

Kung Fu Panda 2
Paramount Pictures
Director: Jennifer Yuh
Screenplay: Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger
Starring: The voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Michelle Yeoh, Seth Rogen and James Hong
Rated PG / 1 hour, 30 minutes
(out of four)

I'm pretty sure it's a requirement for kung-fu movies to revolve around ancient prophecies, destiny and honor, and in that respect Kung Fu Panda 2 is absolutely par for the course.

As far as I remember, that describes the original Kung Fu Panda as well - only it was a vision of a wise old man rather than an ancient prophecy. (For all intents and purposes, it's the same thing, right?) In any case, I've enjoyed both films to some degree - though the more I think of it, the more the two seem to blend together. They're so similar in narrative and character arc that only one really seems necessary.

But that's the way it goes. We repeat formulas that worked once, and we repeat them again and again until people finally tire of them. My hope is that, in the inevitable Kung Fu Panda 3, the studio goes in an entirely new direction. That could at least potentially keep the material fresh - and the characters are strong enough on their own to deserve another entry or two in the franchise.

When I heard the great Charlie Kaufman was doing rewrite work on this film, I hoped that meant something especially unique was in order; alas, the final result sticks pretty closely to the status quo. But you know what? That's OK. There's enough humor for 90 enjoyable minutes - and I caught a few instances of what at least seemed like Kaufman-esque flourishes. (I have to believe the dream sequence in which our corpulent panda hero literally fights a radish was a Kaufman invention, but in any case, it's quite funny.)

The sequel picks up not long after the original left off, but of course the characters have been brought essentially back to square one. Meaning the once-triumphant and heroic Po (voiced by Jack Black) is once again the bumbling goof-off, once again something of a laughingstock amongst the "Furious Five." That works well enough for the film's humor, if at the same exemplifying the rather lazy tendency to backtrack and replicate instead of really moving forward and building off what has already happened.

But that's another issue for another time. Anyway: Kung Fu Panda 2 finds the citizens and protectors of Gongmen City facing the looming threat of a sinister peacock named Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). He was once an heir to the former rulers of the city, and after years of exile has returned to stake his claim to power and destroy kung fu forever via the application of a mysterious weapon.

Distracting Po from his duty to save those he has sworn to protect is the existential crisis he faces when he discovers he was adopted. His father (James Hong) is a goose, of course, so this fact seemed self-evident. But oh, that Po - he may be fleet of foot (for a panda, anyway), but his mind is another story.

I kind of liked the adoption angle - in theory, anyway - but the film doesn't quite capture the absurdity of this giant panda not realizing that a goose is not his biological father. (The Jerk, anyone?)

What I thought was more effective was the movie's satirical use of the "ancient prophecy" device. For years Shen has known of the prophecy that one day he would be defeated by "a warrior of black and white," which naturally refers to a panda - since as everyone knows, ancient China had no anthropomorphic kung-fu-fighting zebras.

Shen is constantly reminded of this prediction by his soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh), who makes no secret of her adamance that the prophecy will indeed come true.

Essentially, she repeatedly warns Shen that he is going to be defeated, and he stubbornly insists otherwise. This makes for some rather entertaining banter between the two. (Why he still keeps her around if he insists her prophecies are wrong is anyone's guess.)

Neither Kung Fu Panda movie does anything particularly ambitious or visually dazzling - but it does what it does pretty well, and rarely does anything especially wrong. The movies are light and funny and nice-looking and charming, and they get in and get out quick and leave us with, if not an ear-to-ear grin, at least a modest smile.

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