Dreamworks recently released their upcoming slate of movies for the next several years, and I notice that Master Po makes a return: “Kung-Fu Panda: The Kaboom of Doom” is, as Industry toppers say, skedded to bow June 2011.
Reportedly, this sequel will return the original cast to face a new villain who “has emerged with a mysterious weapon so powerful it threatens the very existence of kung fu, but Po must also confront his long lost past.” Original helmers Mark Osborne and John Stevenson are replaced by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, though scribers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger seem to be back for the second round.
No matter how much fun Variety slang makes it sound, the news fills me with neither optimism nor skepticism, but a sort of ambivalence. No matter what pieces of the original they retain, Dreamworks is unlikely to repeat the perfection they achieved with “Kung Fu Panda,” a movie that is, to me, so beyond itself it needs no reprise.
I’ve mentioned here before my somewhat lonely opinion that KFP was a far more Oscar-worthy movie than “Wall-E,” which took the 2008 Best Animated Picture award. Fresh in the flush of my post-”Up” euphoria, it seems like blasphemy to say an ill word about Pixar. They know their stuff, and I know they know their stuff. Heck, Wall-E director Andrew Stanton gave the world “Finding Nemo,” another particularly perfect piece of moviemaking that will still be watched and discussed in 100 years.
But the fam and I, inspired by the fun of “Up,” re-watched KFP this weekend, and I was reminded why my candle of enthusiasm burned at both ends for this flick. I have to get this out of my system. Here’s why the Panda mauls the Robot:
1. Simple story. Kung fu tales tend to be straightforward: “You killed my master. Prepare to die.” That excessive simplicity is one reason fu movies are so easy to dismiss. Even though KFP’s plot isn’t much more complex, it delivers so much more depth: “A very unlikely hero dreams of being a kung fu master. Destiny gives him a chance to be the hero of his fantasy.”
Compare this to “Wall-E.” It began like a wordless dream, with indelible loneliness and yearning, and all the makings of an eternal questing tale for the ages. Then about halfway through, these folks showed up:
Our future fat selves brought layers of preachy plot with their layers of flesh. They don’t know what Earth is? Fred Willard originally wanted them to return home but now he doesn’t? And the machines agree with the second Fred Willard, not the first? And if the robots put the seedling in a special Good Machine, that will make the Bad Machines go bye-bye? Bah. Muddy.
2. Theme of lasting value. Kung Fu Panda: “To make something special, you just have to believe it is special.” This gives us a way to cheer our hero —and ourselves —on to our various victories.
Wall-E: “Don’t be lazy, or you’ll get fat. Don’t consume so much stuff; recycle if you can. Also, love is good.” If it had just been a story of love conquering all in its way, maybe this movie would resonate with me more. But as I said: Muddy.
3. Hero’s depth of character. Whatever you think of Jack Black’s goofy man-boy persona, he’s a perfect match for the enthusiastic Po, an outsider who wants inside so very desperately. Black brings Po to life with spirit and spunk, and for all his verbal “hiyaah”s and hijinx, it’s actually quite a nuanced performance. Po is capable of great joy, but also of great disapppointment when he can’t please himself, his master or his persnickety father. Black’s delivery isn’t comedy, it’s just true: He’s the nerdy hero with infectious enthusiasm, but little hope of seeing it pay off. And we all want our enthusiasm rewarded.
Po is a character to believe in, because he’s a character we want to be.
4. Superior action. If KFP’s kung fu choreography were simply a matter of jabbing fists and sweeping legs, it might not be so remarkable. But this movie plays it so much smarter than that. The action makes brilliant use of animal physicality, realistic environment and comedic gags to deliver sequences that are mesmerizing, funny, and memorable.
Mesmerizing like Tai-Lung’s escape from prison (a treat to have seen in Imax)…
… funny like a battle for a dumpling using mere fingers and chopsticks …
… memorable like a villain completely stymied by his foe’s inelegance and inexperience …
… and for my money, the most satisfying defeat of a villain ever. Without giving anything away, I’ll say I found the defeat of Tai-Lung to be the perfect solution to every overblown, uber-aggressive Act Three Shootout, the ones that set themselves up for so much slambang they can’t possibly live up to their own hype at the final moment of the antagonist’s fall. KFP may be an archetype movie, but it turns the archetype on its ear with a final, funny, fulfilling “ska-doosh.”
5. Superior music. Hans Zimmer and John Powell provide a score of subtle beauty and power that moves me as surely as any John Williams march. The songs evoke Eastern melodies without being grating (no Peking Opera gongs!), hokey (no Peking Opera gongs!) or too much like Peking Opera. Instead, the boppy zither tunes and joyful festival-like dances swirl us up in some moments, calm us down in others, and generally place an indelible king’s-signet seal over the whole package of this film. Hummable ditties, all.
Dreamworks had big success pairing modern rock hits with its “Shrek” franchise, but they wisely relegated the obligatory “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting” remake to the credit sequence where, incredibly, it matches well with the silly, bouncy visuals.
In other words, “Kung Fu Panda” was the Complete Package, delivering all the heart, all the wish-fulfillment and all the action I could have hoped. It’s so much more than just another kung fu movie … and more than just another talking-animals movie. (Yes, there IS one shot-to-the-nuts joke, but it’s short and not too odious; plus, in a Hollywood first, not one talking animal farts.)
I get some solace knowing that I wasn’t the only one who preferred Po to the trash-compacting andriod. “Kung Fu Panda” shut out its chief competish at the 2008 Annie Awards. Those awards are handed out by an international conglom of animators — specialists who know their stuff — and they saw through these two movies better than anyone. But raise your hand if you tuned into the Annie telecast. And your other hand, if you remember who wore the daring gold lame sausage casing on the red carpet.
Exactly. Everyone remembers the Oscars. Which leaves me to evangelize to the wilderness.