I find a lot of kids' movies set in the past to be oddly encouraging considering their historical contexts. For example, the villain in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" has that "Chinatown"-esque plot to shut down the trolley system and build freeways in Los Angeles. He is defeated in the film by the 'toon hero, yet even as a young moviegoer I knew the reality, and I left the theater feeling the bleak irony in the fact that eventually L.A. was indeed overrun by these apparently evil roadways. Now "Kung Fu Panda 2" is here with a similarly optimistic tale in which the invention of gunpowder in Ancient China is (only temporarily, of course) thwarted by a gang of martial arts-practicing super friends. Yes, I understand that these movies take place in other universes where either cartoon characters live among humans or the world is populated completely by anthropomorphic animals. That's beside the point.
This sequel to the hit Oscar-nominated DreamWorks Animation flick will also make your kids cry with a panda holocaust sequence that includes a parental death right out of "Bambi." The kids around me at the family-friendly press screening were literally whimpering by the end of the flashback, which provides the reason Po (voiced by Jack Black) has a goose for a father. As it turns out, the ultimate Dragon Warrior is the victim of one of those prophecy-inspired genocides where, in this case, a power-proud peacock (Gary Oldman) learns he'll one day be defeated by a panda -- so he tries to kill every one of the world's pandas. Of course, as always happens, he misses the exact one that will come back for revenge. The cyclical irony of the self-fulfilling prophecy plot is kinda fun, actually, even if it seems awfully reminiscent of anything from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to "Willow" to "Harry Potter" to ... well, it's one of those basic narratives that's been around since stories began.
It's fine that the plot is so familiar if you previously enjoyed the first "Kung Fu Panda," which already worked in the conventional messianic storyline with Po unexpectedly turning out to be a foreseen Master of the martial arts. Faithful to old kung fu films, the cartoon feature similarly dealt in prophesies, including the self-fulfilling sort. What made the original praiseworthy, besides its surprising lack of modern pop culture references and overbearing potty humor, is the way the animators borrowed from traditional Chinese visual arts for an aesthetic that's as respectful as it is beautiful. "Kung Fu Panda 2" delivers in the same way, only now in 3D, which gives the gorgeous landscapes appreciable depth yet does somewhat seem to take away from the faithfulness to the flatness of old Chinese styles, particularly the paper cutting the film references early on.
Otherwise the movie is spectacularly rendered with multiple formats of animation spread throughout, mainly more-two-dimensional drawing sorts used for the flashbacks, of which there seems to be a lot (I think the first film only had shadow puppet-influenced 2D stuff in the intro). I'm reminded once again of the Japanese film "Pom Poko," which features at least three different ways of depicting its raccoon heroes depending on what's going on in the story (it also has a similarly ingenuous nature vs. technology theme). And once again the immature gags are kept to a surprising minimum. I believe the worst offender is an admittedly clever bit with a parade-style dragon costume appearing to eat and then poop-out bad guys. As far as period-piece animation goes, I also kept thinking of Disney's "Robin Hood" and "An American Tail," although I can't say it's as historically rich as the latter.
About the historical aspect, there is something compelling about the way "Kung Fu Panda 2" deals with the duality of gunpowder, how it can be utilized for pleasure and pain. The little rabbits and pigs and other peasants of this version of Ancient China love their fireworks but are of course anti-cannon. I almost want to call it an inadvertent metaphor for 3D or this specific film itself, with its flashy animation spectacle that's fun and exciting and really about as repetitive and familiar as most peony-style fireworks displays. But is there really anything in cinema as evil as the giant guns in this film? I don't think so, though some people might consider bad 3D to be analogous, in which case Po is representative of ... Jeffrey Katzenberg? Or maybe he's the peacock, another part of the film symbolizing a double-sidedness involving simultaneous beauty and deadliness.
Never mind, it's just an entertaining movie for kids, who don't want to be thinking about history or the relevance of its executive producer to the story. They just came to ooh and aah, whether at the kung fu fighting, the cute baby panda or the thwarting of a mass murderer who tried to make those lil guys extinct.
"Kung Fu Panda 2" opens in theaters everywhere this Friday.
Recommended If You Like: "Kung Fu Panda"; "Pom Poko"; "Harry Potter"