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.
The animated Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas has all the great adventure of the story wrapped up in a sappy little package for the kiddies. Taken from the ancient tales of the Arabian Nights Sinbad is a rogue who cares only about what is in his and his crew's best interest--and little else. As the film begins he unsuccessfully tries to steal the Book of Peace--which keeps order in the world--from his childhood best friend Proteus the Prince of Syracuse who is sailing to the city to return the sacred book. Although the two are estranged it's clear they still have a kinship. When the Book of Peace is actually stolen by Eris the goddess of chaos she frames Sinbad for the theft. Proteus stands up for his friend and makes the council give Sinbad one chance to find and return the precious book or Proteus will die on his behalf. Disbelieving the threat the pirate decides to blow the whole thing off but Proteus' beautiful betrothed Marina who has stowed away on Sinbad's ship has other plans. Marina has Sinbad's crew on her side and it could turn mutinous if the guy doesn't fulfill the mission. OK so he'll go get the book. Eris doesn't make it easy for our reluctant hero--dispatching both monstrous creatures and the elements to do battle along the way. But ultimately the brave Sinbad learns a few life lessons falls in love and wins out by following his heart. Aww!
See what a little success in the animated world can get you? These days an animated film can demand the attention of any A-list actor to provide the voices not just your occasional Robin Williams. We have Finding Nemo with the voices of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres and now Sinbad which attracted huge names such as Brad Pitt (Sinbad) Catherine Zeta-Jones (Marina) Michelle Pfeiffer (Eris) and Joseph Fiennes (Proteus). It could also be the fact DreamWorks' animation king Jeffrey Katzenberg has the clout to rope them all in. Pitt as Sinbad is roguishly clever infusing the pirate with the requisite amount mischievousness and rebellion while Zeta-Jones provides the adventurous Marina with the right amount of bravado and vulnerability. Fiennes as the stiff but honorable Proteus is fine but you can tell right away who has the most fun with her character; Pfeiffer's Eris is a pure delight in sound as well as sight. She is able to take her Catwoman persona from Batman Returns and elevate it to a well celestial level. In the supporting roles Dennis Haysbert does a nice job as Sinbad's right-hand man Kale as does Adriano Giannini the son of legendary actor Giancarlo Giannini as the ship's lookout Rat. Kudos all around for a job well done.
As a self-proclaimed fan of those cheesy 1970s Sinbad movies including The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger--where the stop-motion special effects of wizard Ray Harryhausen made it all worthwhile--the idea of an animated version of Sinbad seems perfectly fitted for the genre. Now the mythical creatures could be fully realized in vivid Technicolor where the DreamWorks' animators spare no expense in providing their own visions of things such as sirens sea monsters and giant birds of prey. The artwork for Eris is a particular stroke of genius with the flowing black hair and beautifully evil features; the film definitely comes alive when she is onscreen. As well the action sequences are as exciting as any car chase or gun battle you'll see in a live-action film. The drawback for the adults is the film's slightly schmaltzy story about friendship and of course true love. It's not entirely clear why computer-animated films such as Shrek and Finding Nemo are now becoming the only animated films that appeal to everyone adults and kids alike. It used to be traditional hand-drawn classics such as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King did the trick but now it seems animated films need only provide spectacular visuals--without a great story and snappy dialogue to back them up.