If it's funny for a fat guy to show athletic nimbleness, then I suppose a panda being an expert at kung fu is hilarious. At least that’s the basic premise of the Kung Fu Panda series of movies. Luckily, the films are chock full of terrific actors and some really stunning animation that raises them above such ridiculous ideas.
In Kung Fu Panda we find that our illustrious hero Po (Jack Black) is a big, fat, lazy panda who has a goose for a father (James Hong), and idolizes the Furious Five - Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) - a group of super kung fu fighters. Their leader, Grand Master Oogway, (Randall Duk Kim) has a vision that the evil snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) will escape from prison and seek revenge against Oogway and his people.
Oogway then assembles the Furious Five plus his old student Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) for a kung fu tournament to identify a new Dragon Warrior who will then destroy Tai Lung. As you might have guessed - being old enough to read the title of this movie - it is Po who is inadvertently chosen as the Dragon Master. He, like the Biblical character of Zacchaeus who also could not see his master because of a crowd, straps fireworks to his chest and rockets himself into the sky causing Oogway to inadvertently choose him as the Chosen One.
If that sounds complicated, I can assure it you it's not. The story follows a familiar path of an unlikely character being chosen for greatness and then it follows your basic Hero’s Journey to a happy ending. Po is begrudgingly trained by Master Shifu and the Five, starts to do good then fails, works harder and fails again. Rinse, repeat. He fights the boss, looks like he’s going to fail yet again but proves himself to be the Dragon Master in the end.
Plotwise, it's a very familiar film. What sets it apart is the stunning animation and the comic energy storm that is Jack Black along with a terrific (and terrifically underused) secondary cast. Set in ancient China, the animators use this as an excuse to bring us some really beautiful shots of that unimpeachable landscape that looks ridiculously good. I’m not always a fan of Black, but he’s truly in his element here bringing life into a pretty cliche-ridden role and making it his own.
The sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2, delivers more of the same. Having completed his journey and become the Dragon Warrior, Po is enjoying his life protecting the land alongside the Furious Five. But now a new evil villain threatens peace and perhaps the kung fu way of life. Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), an evil peacock, has invented cannon technology and is using it to take control of China.
The thing about sequels is that they must rely even more heavily on plot than the first ones. In the first films, you spend time introducing and developing your characters and in films like Kung Fu Panda where your main character takes a hero’s journey then your plot writes itself. But when you get to a sequel we already know the main characters and the hero has become the hero so these films tend to rely heavily on plot more than anything else, which is why so many sequels aren’t good.
Much like the first one, Kung Fu Panda 2 does very little in the plot department, playing it pretty much by the numbers, but once again it is elevated above the fray by delivering some spectacular animation and delightful performances by Jack Black and Gary Oldman. Besides the familiar plot beats of the action-driven story, we’re also given some nice flashback scenes that flesh out how Po the Panda could have a goose father. These scenes are animated in a completely different, but no less stunning, style than the rest of the film.
If the star-studded cast was underused in the first film, then here they are given what amounts to nothing more than extended cameos. The characters themselves are given a decent amount of screen time, but since this is an animated film what actually counts for the actors is voice time and they are given very little of that.
Once again, it is Jack Black who carries much of the film’s weight and his hefty shoulders are more than up to the task. His boundless energy and comic timing keep the film rolling right along with plenty of laughs and lots of fun action.
As both these releases are subtitled “Ultimate Edition of Awesomeness,” you’d expect them to be full of interesting extras. For once, you’d be right. Both feature behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with the cast, and audio commentaries. They each also come with bonus disks featuring three new animated short films starring Po and the Furious Five, plus blooper reels, music videos, and more.
In the world of Dreamworks versus Pixar, I remain a Pixar fanboy. Films like the Kung Fu Panda series are exactly why. While both of these films are beautifully animated and a whole lot of fun, they stick to the basics plotwise and lose any sense of in-depth character development. While Pixar films are (usually) emotionally rich and uniquely created by filmmakers with a unique vision, Dreamworks continues to churn out films that are entertaining but feel as if they were made by committee.