Hi, everyone! Welcome to the first official review of FlickMuncher.com. Before I begin the review itself, here’s a quick rundown on what the planned schedule will be for this site. Reviews will be coming out every Tuesday evening and will alternate between Popular and Classic reviews. On the Cutting Room Floor there are Editorials of my own thoughts on well-known and current films. These will be published every other Thursday. Thank you for reading and now, on to the review!
Warning—This review will contain spoilers!
I think whenever someone reviews a sequel, some context is necessary to clarify their opinions on that film next to the ones that came before it in the franchise. So here are my thoughts on the first two Kung Fu Panda movies.
I hated (as in, with extreme prejudice) the first one and loved (as in, up there among my favorite films of all time) the second. A bit oversimplified maybe, but that pretty much sums up how I felt about those two movies when I first watched them. Since then I’ve somewhat modified my stance on both. While I don’t necessarily enjoy all of Kung Fu Panda, there are elements and scenes that I’ve appreciate more now several years later. Kung Fu Panda 2 is also not a perfect movie and there are parts of it that do bug me.
So here’s what happened. I was planning to do this review on Saturday. Because my parents were out of town I was charged with taking care of my sister, who is 12 years old, and my three little brothers who are nine, six, and three. Since all of them were and are of the firm opinion that anything that isn’t animated is a “grown-ups movie”, this seemed to be something worth taking them along on.
By some miracle, we actually made it to the theater on time and managed to find some seats for all of us as the previews began to roll. I will admit, I had to keep my attention half on the screen and half on where the boys were and that turned out to be a good thing. They had plenty of laughs, and Timmy—the youngest—had his eyes go wide a couple of times; scared and excited. All of them seemed to have a lot of fun throughout.
Then we left the theater after the credits rolled. We got into the car and I heard nothing. I asked how they liked it and the general consensus seemed to be that they thought it was fun, but nothing they would gush about after they left the theater.
In many ways that’s the biggest problem with this movie. It’s good…but not special.
What do I mean by this?
Well, here’s the story. Po (Jack Black) is a confident kung fu warrior who is living it high as the Dragon Warrior and everyone in the valley where he lives—including his heroes, The Furious Five, and his teacher, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman)—love him. But then he learns from Shifu that he has to become the new Kung Fu teacher. Po is unsure about this, and rightfully so. He’s terrible at teaching, and everyone—including Po—knows it.
Matters are further complicated when his long-lost panda father (Bryan Cranston) shows up looking for him to come back home with him. This leads to some tension between Po and Ping, the goose who raised him.
On top of all this, an ancient evil “Spirit Warrior”(J. K. Simmons) has returned from the Netherworld with a vow to claim the Chi—i.e. spiritual energy; think of the Force in Star Wars—of all the greatest Kung Fu masters and only the pandas can defeat him. Po agrees to return to the panda village in hopes of saving the valley and his friends from this evil menace.
As you can tell there’s a lot going on in this movie. And while it manages to juggle all these balls pretty well, some elements come across better than others. The humor is classic Dreamworks: mostly targeted at adults but with plenty of jokes that kids will laugh at as well.
The best parts about this movie though, revolve around Po and his two fathers. He cares about his dad, the goose, and doesn’t want to hurt him, but at the same time he understandably wants to know more about the father and people he lost so many years ago. There’s a wonderful scene where his father shows Po a picture of him and his mother and tells him about who she was and who Po was before he was lost. The emotion of the scene is carried over beautifully in the animation and the voice acting by Jack Black and Bryan Cranston is pitch perfect.
I also want to give a special nod to James Hong who voices Ping the goose and has been in such films as Disney’s Mulan and Big Trouble in Little China. In the Kung Fu Panda franchise he has been by far my favorite, most consistent part of all of it and he doesn’t disappoint here. You wouldn’t expect much from a character like Ping and yet his constant fatherly devotion to Po even in the face of competition from Po’s actual father makes him one of the most admirable characters I’ve ever seen on screen.
This film also gets to show how much Po has grown as a character since we met him back in the first movie, progressing from a clumsy, inept student, to a confident warrior, to finally a teacher of the art he’s loved all his life. It’s a suitable progression that feels right when you look at the film series as a whole. A great moment that shows this growth is when Po lets a little panda keep one of his prized Furious Five dolls—excuse me, action figures. He no longer needs it.
These moments are wonderful to see and think about, which makes the stuff that doesn’t work so much more frustrating. Much of it revolves around the villain. Po is a great character that is well realized and well written but a great hero is defined by the villains he faces. In the second movie, he had a wonderfully wounded villain to go up against, who challenged him on a very personal level and had understandable motivations and feelings.
This movie’s villain, Kai (J.K. Simmons) unfortunately feels really undercooked. I’ll give him this, he certainly has a cool design—as a Chinese bull with spiky horns who fights with two green jade swords on chains—and the animation done on him is very impressive; even allowing him to feel genuinely menacing and threatening at times. But aside from that, he’s incredibly boring and weak. As I mentioned above, his entire desire is to become all-powerful by collecting the Chi of other Kung Fu Masters because…he loves power? Not a great motivation and one we’ve seen done countless times before.
He has a backstory, of course, that he was betrayed and banished by Oogway many years ago and this is part of what’s driving him. Who’s Oogway? Oh yeah, he’s that turtle from the first movie that spouted lots of spiritual wisdom about the universe and the past, present, and future and then disappeared. But that’s one of the main problems with Kai. He isn’t connected with any of our main characters and so his conflict with our heroes feels less personal and less engaging as a result.
Things aren’t helped by the fact that his voice actor, J. K. Simmons, just feels miscast in the role. I love Simmons work. To me he’ll always be J. Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman movies and he is fantastic in the TV series Legend of Korra, which I highly recommend, but here he just feels out of place and it’s rather distracting. Even in the funnier moments where he’s interacting with our heroes and he’s forced to play the straight-man to their antics, I just did not find him that funny.
Beyond the villain, there is a point in the story where it’s revealed to Po that his father can’t teach him about Chi because the pandas don’t know anything about it. Po gets mad at him and it’s pretty predictable from there. You know they’re going to mope about for a few minutes and then make up before the big finale. This makes the entire lie and getting upset over said lie a complete waste of screen time the filmmakers could have used to do other things, like answer why the pandas don’t know how to use this power anymore.
But no, they just whip out the answer at the end with—no explanation whatsoever as to how they all figured it out at the same time—to give Po a power up to defeat Kai.
Then the finale started out amazing, taking place in the “Spirit Realm” in a sequence which was so well played I had a chill running up my spine the entire time. I dare not spoil it for you here but the visuals alone are surreal and stunning.
Then it just kind of wraps up, with some more spiritual mumbo jumbo to try and explain what just happened. It speaks to how out of place this stuff was when my brother, A.J., who was sitting right next to me, had an expression of awe a minute ago changed to a look of complete boredom.
So, these points are all definitely negative, but do they ruin the film?
Mmmmm, Not really.
I still think it’s a very well made movie. The style of animation, which has obvious influences from old Bruce Lee martial arts movies, and the music—another wonderful score by Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe—get extra credit from me as I think they make this film and its predecessors rather unique, even among other animated films today.
It’s biggest problem is that it’s nothing to write home about. It’s just…okay. Unless you’re a huge fan of animation or film, you’ll probably be talking more about the preview for the Trolls movie (yes, that does in fact exist) than about the actual film itself.
That being said, I still think it’s a great movie for folks of all ages to enjoy during the doldrums of January. If you like animation or are fond of martial arts movies or are just looking for something to occupy two hours of your time, I’d definitely try it out.
Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments section. I’d love to hear what you all think. What stood out to you about this movie? What movies would you like to see reviews of?
Next week: We’re going back in time to the ridiculousness of the eighties to see how they treated the 1800s with The Pirates of Penzance.