China in your hands
is gorgeously animated from start to finish, but it clobbers its youngest viewers with an overly serious, surprisingly laugh-free story, writes Donald Clarke
SEVEN YEARS ago, during the late Triassic Period for computergenerated features, DreamWorks delivered a truly ghastly – though hugely successful – animated entertainment called Shark Tale. With its lazy in-jokes, horrendous visuals and lumbering plotting, the film risked turning the studio into the Happy Madison of the new industry (if you don’t get that dig, we are referencing Adam Sandler’s production company). Shark Tale’s success ensured, surely, that DreamWorks would not bother to raise its standards.
Well, to be fair to the troubled company, the boffins worked hard at developing more nuanced, more lavishly produced family features. The Shrek franchise drifted into decline, but recent productions such as King Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon and Megamind have demonstrated that DreamWorks can occupy the same ring as the mighty Pixar.
Which brings us to the unusual beast (in more ways than one) that is Kung Fu Panda 2. Few more beautifully crafted films will come your way this season. Offering lavish portraits of ancient China, featuring sweeping virtual camera moves that dazzle the senses, scored to clever pastiches of Asian tunes, the picture showcases the new media to heart-stopping effect. Bung it on a wide-screen and hang it in your nearest gallery of representational art. If you want a gorgeous blend of pop sensibility and Wu xia, then this is your only man. Blah, blah, blah.
But hang on a moment. Isn’t Kung Fu Panda 2 supposed to be a family film? When Jack Black voices a panda named Po, we expect, surely, the beast to repeatedly fall into puddles and dance amusingly to contemporary funk classics. If we wanted turbocharged Akira Kurosawa, then that is what we would have asked for.
For all of this sequel’s virtues, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the picture is not nearly funny enough. Minutes pass by without anything like a joke announcing itself. More energy is put into animating the lovely cityscapes than finding objects for the protagonist to run into. Still, it is a beautiful thing. The new film finds Po living blissfully among his fellow anthropomorphic pals in the selfexplanatory Valley of Peace. His adopted father, a goose, remains amusingly befuddled. The fellow members of the Furious Five (martial animals voiced by the likes of Angelina Jolie and Jackie Chan) remain alert to any looming incursions.
While fighting off attacks from a horde of killer wolves, Po spots a mystical symbol and has a flashback – rendered in, yes, gorgeous 2D Manga style – of life with his late Panda mother.
It soon transpires that an evil peacock named Shen (Gary Oldman) has taken the imperial throne and, now a master of gunpowder, is seeking to complete earlier-hatched plans to annihilate the panda population. Soon a full-scale war is afoot. Whole armies march back and forth across the increasingly crowded screen. Meanwhile, Po seeks to discover the secrets of his muddled past.
While the grandiose images accumulate, the original movie’s sense of fun gets increasingly overpowered by the film-makers’ need to expand their creative palette. It would be unfair to stress any comparisons with the Matrix films ( KF2 is never exactly boring), but it looks as if, before part three goes into production, somebody needs to reintroduce a sense of proportion.
Then again. Kung Fu Panda 2 recently managed to achieve a release in China. There is a vast audience out there that will, surely, warm to lavish representations of its own colourful heritage. Fair enough. But, as Mrs Lovejoy famously quipped in The Simpsons, won’t somebody please think of the children.
The A team: panda Po leads his crew into action