KUNG FU PANDA 2 or Why There is No Panda Style

Kung Fu Panda 2 Movie Poster On the Thursday before Memorial Day Weekend 2011, the highly-anticipated sequel to the 2008 blockbuster KUNG FU PANDA premieres. It's the most coveted date for film releases outside Thanksgiving, the beginning of the summer rush. The long Memorial Day weekend promises big box office numbers; releasing it on Thursday instead of Friday pads the box office with 24 extra hours to set all-time records. With the additional surcharge for 3D, it's a very calculated move for a very clever panda.

The original film was a global box office success. It opened at #1 taking in $60 million and went on to amass over $631 million worldwide. That's huge - fat panda huge - and clearly, DreamWorks is banking on another blockbuster. With those huge numbers, Po is an international franchise. For its premiere weekend, PANDA faces off with another highly-anticipated sequel, THE HANGOVER PART II. However, HANGOVER is rated R which limits the audience. It also isn't 3D, and that additional surcharge for those 'recyclable' glasses counts towards the box office bottom line, so it's unlikely that the Wolf Pack will be able to best Po. The previous weekend, another sequel took sail - PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES. That is 3D and rated PG-13. It opened at #1 and delivered over $90 million on opening weekend. But with the three-day weekend plus Thursday, Po has the advantage to make Captain Jack walk the plank off #1. What's more, Po could hold the #1 slot for a few weeks. The biggest contender for the following week is a prequel, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, which is getting a little lost with the wave of superhero flicks like THOR, GREEN LANTERN and CAPTAIN AMERICA. After that, SUPER 8, an original film (imagine that!) by J. J. Abrams has a shot, and more will follow, but - and pardon the pun - KUNG FU PANDA 2 is well PO-sitioned to be one of 2011's top box office draws.

The marketing strategy behind KUNG FU PANDA 2 would make Sun Tzu proud. Two weeks before at Cannes, Jack Black, Angelina Jolie and Dustin Hoffman made red carpet appearances to pump up the buzz. And even more pumped up, the Po balloon, which debuted at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade last year, toured the country making special appearances as it made its way to Los Angeles for the premiere. On May 19th at the Battle of the Bay, Po met another kung fu panda - Pablo Sandoval of the World Champion San Francisco Giants. The Giants went on to defeat the Oakland As 2-1 in the 10th. There was even a marketing campaign with House Foods America where Po and the Furious Five serve as the ambassadors for their organic tofu line. The campaign's microsite, www.kungfutofu2.com, includes recipes, history, a 'tofupedia' and chances to win a trip to China. To top it all off, there's even a real live Po now. The third cub born to Lun Lun at the Zoo Atlanta on November 3rd was named Po. Jack Black was on hand for publicity photos. This has international implications as all of the eleven pandas in American zoos are on loan from China (at a price of $1 million a year to China's Panda conservation programs). Which begs the question - How did the original KUNG FU PANDA do in China? Quite well actually. It earned over $26 million, the third highest international box office take after the United Kingdom and France. As China is the most rapidly growing film market in the world today, Po could become an ambassador for more than just Macy's, baseball and tofu. He could rise to be an emissary of cultural exchange.

Angelina Jolie, Po and Jack Black at the Festival de Cannes
Angelina Jolie, Po and Jack Black at the Festival de Cannes

The success of Po all hinges on one thing now - is KUNG FU PANDA any good? It is. In fact, it's awesome.

KUNG FU PANDA 2 hits all the right notes that a good sequel should. It recaptures the chemistry of the original cast reuniting all the original voice actors. It develops the characters, giving fans more insight as to their back story. And it adds some new characters that are compelling, although therein lies the film's major flaw. We'll come back to that. The most notable factor that will drive audiences to the box office is the 3D. The 3D is spectacular. Lately, moviegoers have been disappointed with weak post-production 3D in films like THE LAST AIRBENDER. Nothing puts an audience more than having to pay more just to get a headache from mediocre 3D. But KUNG FU PANDA 2 exploits the 3D medium to its fullest. The scenery is absolutely sumptuous. The animated colors and textures are wonderfully complex, especially the fireworks which dazzle and delight. That just won't play on an iPhone. It's something that has to be experienced on a big screen.

The film isn't perfect. Much of the story is rather formulaic (when Po seeks his real parents, will he really cast Mr. Ping aside?) It also borrows liberally from Stephan Chow's KUNG FU HUSTLE with Po's recovery and SHAOLIN SOCCER with Po's inevitable victory-leading realization. The destroyer of kung fu echoes themes of Kurosawa's classic films SEVEN SAMURAI, YOJIMBO and KAGEMUSHA. Nevertheless, these poached plot devices are dwarfed by the spectacle of great 3D animation and the charming chemistry of Po, Tigress and Shifu.

Kung Fu Panda and the Furious Five

Now back to that other flaw. In the great computer-animated franchises, the key factor in for a successful sequel is a new character. SHREK 2 introduced Puss, who was so charismatic that he'll have his own film this year, which is just as well as by SHREK 4 the franchise was completely played out. In TOY STORY 2, Jesse appears. TOY STORY took the noble route. Instead of milking the franchise dry, it found a satisfying conclusion with last year's final installment, so much so that many hailed it as the best film of the trilogy. In KUNG FU PANDA 2, the two new characters are the villain, Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman) and the Soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh). While Oldman delivers a pitch-perfect villain, villains don't really count as *OBVIOUS SPOILER ALERT* they seldom make it to the next installment *END OBVIOUS SPOILER*. The Soothsayer has great potential as a female source of wisdom, one that is not as annoyed with Po as Shifu. Quite the opposite, with the ability to foresee the future, the Soothsayer is the annoying one and Yeoh carries the role expertly. However, unlike Puss or even Jesse, the Soothsayer doesn't steal the show. The character has potential to do so in the future, but it just doesn't happen in this film.

Jackie Chan voicing of Monkey

Another amusing addition to the cast is none other than the Muscles from Brussels himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme voicing Master Croc. Like Jackie Chan's voicing of Monkey, it's a great tongue-in-cheek nod to have a major martial arts film star participate. Disappointingly, both Jackie and JCVD are sorely underused. Granted, both actors have thick accents which might be perceived as troublesome for voice actor, but could be made to work. In KUNG FU PANDA 2, they have less than a dozen lines combined. There's a feint acknowledgement to their respective careers. If any animal would characterize Jackie's acrobatic style, it would surely be monkey. And Croc busts into splits, the signature move of JCVD. But overall, the actual kung fu of KUNG FU PANDA is disappointing from the perspective of a kung fu enthusiast.

Kung Fu Panda Here's a very picky criticism, one that you'll only read from KungFuMagazine.com. The kung fu film genre is ripe for such parody and the diverse styles could easily characterize Tigress, Viper, Mantis, Crane and Monkey, but they don't. Tigress is the closest. Crane is almost there too. But Mantis and Monkey just act like a mantis and monkey and Viper is reduced to a living rope. Lord Shen, who is a peacock, does pull some fan-like moves with his tail, but it's a far cry from the brilliant fights created by Sifu Kisu, who set the bar astronomically high for cartoon choreography with AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER.

Of course, there is no Panda style. That seems odd as there are genuine kung fu styles for toads, ducks, turtles and chickens, and China takes a lot of national pride in its pandas. China even has its own kung fu panda in the works. In January, TIME reported on Chinese-made 3D film currently in production that will feature a kung fu panda against a tai chi rabbit. But as for real pandas, perhaps they are just too adorable to inspire the emulation of medieval warriors. Just look at pandas in the zoo. Of all the higher mammals, the pandas seem genuinely content. The primates look schizophrenic, the big cats look claustrophobic, and the elephants look horribly sad, even in the best of zoos. These are intelligent wild animals, now caged. In contrast, pandas look very happy. Solitary by nature, pandas munch on their bamboo and watch the endless parade of adoring fans just like someone might channel surf. In fact, within zoos in China, it's fairly common for zoo goers to jump the fence and attempt to hug the panda which almost always results in them getting bit. Given Po's obsession with food, perhaps that aspect of kung fu choreography is appropriate.

Kung Fu Panda fight choreographi by Rodolphe Guenoden

KUNG FU PANDA's fight choreographer is credited to Rodolphe Guenoden, an anime artist whose non-storyboard sketches border on soft-core hentai. He has numerous other credits as an animation supervisor including MADAGASCAR, PRINCE OF EGYPT and BALTO. Guenoden has studied karate, taekwondo and krav maga for over about two decades, so he comes with a martial perspective, but perhaps not the right martial perspective. On the original film, former wushu champion Eric Chen was consulted, but his influence isn't obvious. If KUNG FU PANDA really wants to penetrate China, the next film should endeavor to delve deeper into the vast tradition that is Chinese martial arts. That being said, the fight scenes of KUNG FU PANDA 2 are still very engaging, mostly because of the 3D and the ability to defy the basic laws of physics and gravity without repercussion. Cartoon choreography is always more Looney Tunes than real, as it should be. But to take KUNG FU PANDA to the next level, what it needs is some real kung fu. At least, KUNG FU PANDA 2 didn't resort to Carl Douglas' 'Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting' again and for that alone, kung fu fans will be grateful.

KUNG FU PANDA 2 concludes leaving the door wide open for the next sequel. And like a good strategist, DreamWorks is already prepared. DreamWorks is cooperating with Nickelodeon to produce KUNG FU PANDA: THE SERIES, which will surely be akin to the MADAGASCAR series. With impersonator voice-actors, this is set to debut sometime in 2011. What's more, DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg revealed that they have already plotted out six chapters to the KUNG FU PANDA saga. If the rest of the four films can at least live up to the latest installment, this franchise may be with us for a long time. However, to truly embody awesomeness, Po, Shifu and the Furious Five must step up their game for KUNG FU PANDA 3.

Kung Fu Panda: The Kaboom Of Doom

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