There is a moment in Kung Fu Panda 2 Dreamworks’ stellar follow-up to its 2008 talking-animal blockbuster that is as clever and subversive as any I’ve seen in recent animated films. Just before the climactic final battle our hero Po (Jack Black) thought to have been vanquished re-appears above a rooftop to declare his challenge to the villainous Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) who sits upon a battleship in the canal below preparing mount his siege. As Po launches into his speech the camera pulls back to reveal that Shen is in fact well out of earshot; he can’t make out a single word the panda is saying. Shen pleas in vain for him to speak up only to give up in frustration and commence his assault forthwith.
There are lovely bits like this scattered throughout Kung Fu Panda 2 little moments that undermine traditional action-movie tropes to hilarious effect. Much praise is owed to director Jennifer Yuh Nelson and returning writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger who have adroitly addressed the chief – and arguably only – complaint about the first film: that its story was too lightweight too formulaic too cautiously adherent to the conventional hero’s journey blueprint. Their follow-up may not be as charming or whimsical as its predecessor but it makes up for it with added depth and emotional resonance.
How much depth you ask? Genocide childhood abandonment issues and industrialization’s destabilizing effects are just a few of the formidable topics touched upon in the sequel. But don’t fret; the filmmakers haven’t suddenly set their sights on Pixar-grade profundity. The tone of Kung Fu Panda 2 is still as earnest and unpretentious – and joyful – as before.
And it’s still anchored by a refreshingly restrained Black as the voice of Po the chubby noodle-slinger turned kung fu superstar. The second installment finds Po and the Furious Five – Tigress (Angelina Jolie) Mantis (Seth Rogen) Crane (David Cross) Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Viper (Lucy Liu) – facing a formidable new foe in the diminutive guise of Lord Shen a seething tyrant whose new invention the cannon threatens to make kung fu obsolete. Po has a personal connection with the peacock: It was Shen who spooked by a soothsayer’s premonition sacked Po’s native village several years prior forcing Po’s parents to ship their infant son off to safety – and onto the doorstep of his adoptive father Mr. Ping (James Hong).
Po’s only hope of victory his mentor Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) informs him is to find inner peace. (That’s all?!?) The path to nirvana is a jagged one marked with dizzying chases and riveting kung fu battles all elaborately choreographed and beautifully rendered. As we’ve come to expect with CG sequels the animation in Kung Fu Panda 2 surpasses that of the previous film retaining its signature look while adding greater detail and more exquisite landscapes. Though the 3D is top-quality I would still recommend seeing the film in 2D if only because of the darkening effect caused by so many 3D projectors. Colors these lush deserve as bright a canvas as possible.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
When all-American girl Susan Murphy is inadvertently hit by a falling meteor on her wedding day she grows to be nearly 50 feet tall. The U.S. military gets wind of this renames her Ginormica and locks her away with a slacker group of other “monsters” in a top-secret compound. But when a mysterious alien robot lands on Earth and begins wreaking havoc these good-hearted but inept creatures are called into action by the President and must band together as a team to save the world from certain catastrophe.
WHO’S IN IT?
As usual Dreamworks has assembled a stellar A-list voice cast led by Reese Witherspoon as Susan/Ginormica. Playing one of the rare female animated heroes Witherspoon’s sweet/confused demeanor — in light of her highly unusual status as a fearsome freakazoid — hits just the right tone generously letting her zanier colleagues steal scenes from right under her (a long way down by the way). Chief among these are a not-so-bright gelatinous blue mass named B.O.B. hilariously voiced by Seth Rogen; the genius Dr. Cockroach Ph.D in the capable hands of House doc Hugh Laurie; and Will Arnett’s half-ape half-fish The Missing Link. In the human roles there’s Stephen Colbert as the idiotic U.S. President Kiefer Sutherland as the monster’s prison guardian Paul Rudd as the ego-driven weatherman fiancé of Susan; and a deliciously villainous Rainn Wilson as Galaxhar the alien determined to take over Earth.
Superb 3-D effects aren’t overdone and add immeasurably to the ginormous fun of the film but even seeing it in theaters that only show it in regular 2-D doesn’t spoil the pure joy of this cartoonish War of the Worlds. Throw in parodies of every cheap '50s sci-fi movie you can think of and you have the ingredients for a silly monster mash sure to appeal to just about anyone who wants to laugh. Despite the impressive production elements it’s the smart and clever script that really sets it apart from its competitors — and that even includes the similar Monsters Inc. from Pixar.
Like any kid-oriented comic ‘toon today the action can be a bit too frenetic and Monsters vs. Aliens piles a lot of it on in its trim 95 minutes. Still the lovable characters carry the day and somehow make it all palatable.
When Susan now Ginormica brings her new friends home to meet her parents chaos ensues and so do the laughs. Also impressive are the large action scenes that make fine use of CGI animation breakthroughs.
BEST SUPPORTING BLOB:
It's easily the one-eyed lame-brained blue lug of a people hugger named B.O.B. perfectly matched to the talents of Rogen. He rolls away with the movie and inevitably the merchandise tie-ins.
After a brief flashback prologue where we see how the young lion Alex (Ben Stiller) is separated from his father Zuba (Bernie Mac) inadvertently ending up in the Big Apple the story returns to present day as our favorite New York zoo denizens prepare to take off from Madagascar in a crudely constructed airplane piloted by the penguins and propelled by slingshot. Unfortunately for Alex lovelorn giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) fast talking zebra Marty (Chris Rock) and svelte hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith) instead of landing in NYC the aircraft sputters and crash lands right in the middle of Africa where they run into a world of exotic creatures. This also includes Alex’s long lost dad and mom. Happy reunion? Not quite. Zuba’s nemesis Mukunga (Alec Baldwin) insists they follow lion pride lore which means Alex must go through a rite of passage -- one he is sure to fail if Mukunga has his way. Meanwhile Marty tries to integrate into a pack of zebras; Gloria gets hooked up with a soulful hippo (will.i.am); and Melman is up to his neck looking for love. Oh and they also all have to save the Kenya preserve from a life-threatening water shortage. No biggie! Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa’s witty and hip dialogue provides rich voice over opportunities for a talented crew of actors. Stiller continues to be a riot as the showbiz loving Zooperstar Alex especially in his attempts to earn the pride’s respect. Chris Rock earns his stripes as he tries to hang with a large group of look-a-like sound-a-like zebras. Schwimmer is winning and hysterical as Melman now considered a witchdoctor by his fellow giraffe-ians while Pinkett-Smith continues to shine as hippo Gloria looking for a little action. Among the new voices rapper will.i.am as Moto Moto the last of the red-hot hippos will have you wanting More More while Alec Baldwin gets to play the heavy with Lion King style. The late Bernie Mac playing it relatively straight as Alex’s father proves (as he does in his other new release this week Soul Men) shows us just how much his unique brand of humor will be sorely missed. Stealing the show however and getting king-sized laughs in an expanded role is Sacha Baron Cohen back as King Julien the hard-partying head of the lemurs. With a vast improvement in Madagascar’s state-of-the-art computer graphic work directors Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath take this sequel several notches up in terms of technical savvy including the exciting opening sequence as well as the plane crash. But they really score with the script with new co-writer Etan Cohen adding some crisp comedy. What was mostly just a serviceable script the first time around has gotten a lot more sophisticated and clever a development parents being dragged by their kids will be keenly grateful for. This is the rare animated sequel that actually has a reason for existence other than minting money. It has more heart drama and laughs than the original Madagascar which despite its flaws still made half a billion dollars worldwide. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa should make even more as it proves to be one of the year’s most entertaining comedy delights.
Poor Shrek (Mike Myers). The irascible ogre just can’t catch a break. First he has to leave his beloved swamp to rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). Then he marries her and has to go meet the in-laws. NOW he’s stuck in Far Far Away as its de facto ruler after the frog king croaks. Oh and he finds out Fiona is pregnant too. All this throws the great green one into a tailspin because 1) impending fatherhood scares the bejeezus out him and 2) he believes he has no business being king. So Shrek sets out with his pals Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) to fetch Artie aka Arthur (Justin Timberlake) Fiona’s cousin and next in line for the throne. Thing is Artie’s just a teenager—and kind of a loser one at that; he really doesn’t want to be king either. Meanwhile on the home front Fiona and her merry band of princesses have to defend the castle against the vain Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) who’s hell bent on getting revenge and taking over Far Far Away. And so the high jinks ensure. But it’s OK it all works out in the end. Certainly part of Shrek’s charm is its vocal talent. Myers Diaz and Murphy are all old pros by now—which is actually a good and bad thing. They are definitely more comfortable with their roles but Shrek isn’t nearly as charmingly irritable as he once was and Fiona not as feisty. Guess they are growing up. And Murphy used to get all the best lines as the jittery Donkey. Now that job has been delegated to the likes of Banderas as Puss as well as side characters such as the Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) Pinocchio (Cody Cameron) and the Three Little Pigs (also Cameron). Also adding to the humor are the various princesses especially SNL alums Amy Poehler as the sardonic Snow White and Maya Rudolph as turncoat Rapunzel plus Amy Sedaris as the dimwitted Cinderella. Timberlake is sweetly goofy as Artie while Brit comic legend Eric Idle voices the New Age-y on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown Merlin the magician with aplomb. It’s these characterizations that make Shrek the Third zing. Much like Shrek 2 this third installment ultimately comes off as a retread. They just haven’t been able to recapture the magic created in the original. Instead the filmmakers regurgitate the same comic set ups and in some cases the same jokes. Maybe they won’t ever be able to reach that same plateau. But you’ve still got to give the Shrek franchise props for being the granddaddy of fairy-tale spoofs. Even if the sequels don’t measure up the Shrek phenomenon on the whole has set the bar creating a certain charisma in the let’s-make-fun-of-traditional-lore milieu. Shrek the Third highlights include: Worcestershire High School where Artie goes to school which is full of John Hughes teenagers talking in medieval oh-thou-di’nt-just-say-that speak; Charming being relegated to doing third-rate dinner theater; Pinocchio trying to talk his way around not lying and more. Oh who cares what us dumb critics say anyway. Kids are going to love Shrek the Third regardless of whether it hits the mark or not.