...shining light on the media, one review at a time
In the first Kung Fu Panda, the watching world was introduced to the concept of a panda who could do kung fu. Not only that, but he became an action hero by being his clumsy, overweight self—showing kids that appearances aren’t important, but hard work and perseverance are essential. Along with those lessons, however, came body humor, plenty of martial arts violence, and an unsettling amount of teachings from Eastern religion.
The second time around, Po the Panda is now the famed Dragon Warrior, but not much has changed. Kung Fu Panda 2 is still a blend of positive lessons mixed with Buddhist and other spiritualistic teachings and a flurry of kung fu fights. Without the sexual innuendos, offensive language, and crudities that have ruined so many recent kids’ movies, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a safer choice than many, but only if parents are present to shield their kids from absorbing more than just the uplifting side of this tale.
Panda 2 picks up essentially where the first film left off, but viewers who haven’t seen the first film needn’t worry, as this story is well-constructed as a stand-alone adventure. Audiences who have seen both movies will enjoy the many inside jokes and references to the first Panda that the filmmakers slip into this sequel.
Unlike the dejected kung fu wannabe we met in the first film, Po is now famous as the Dragon Warrior—the leader of “the Five” kung fu experts. The Five are now Po’s friends, no longer ridiculing him as they did during the first adventure, but rather respecting his unique fighting style, bumbling and haphazard though it may be.
Po’s enjoyment of his fame and his resulting cockiness is brought to a screeching halt when he and his friends are sent to defeat the treacherous Shen, a peacock with the proclaimed design of bringing all of China to its knees before him. What Po doesn’t realize is that he has a dark history with Shen, but that past is buried somewhere in Po’s memory.
Early run-ins with Shen’s cohorts cause painful jolts to Po’s memory, bringing repressed images and feelings to the surface that for Po are glimpses of a mystery he can’t solve. The incidents prompt Po to start wondering about his identity as never before.
As pieces of Po’s past start to come together, he becomes increasingly unsettled, feeling lost without the grounding of who he thought he was. Without knowing it, Po is headed on a collision course with his past and Shen’s predicted future.
This plot may sound serious, but, like the first Panda film, the movie is much more comedy than drama, and the serious elements are always cut short or sprinkled heavily with humor. To their credit, the filmmakers keep the comedy family-friendly for the most part and use less body humor than in the original Kung Fu Panda.
Po is still highly immature at times in this story, but his childish attitude is usually looked down on or dismissed by his peers and teacher. On the positive side, Po has also clearly grown from what he learned in his experiences from the first film, and, as a result, there’s less of the extreme silliness that existed in the first movie.
Panda 2 shows that the originality and creativity of this filmmaking team is still strong, and many of the jokes this time around reflect that they’re willing to work harder to come up with new material, rather than only recycling the old. Thanks to that effort, there are ample opportunities for kids to laugh, and a few moments of cleverness for adults as well (Pac-Man fans, keep your eyes open).
Despite Po’s frequent goofiness and unintentional faux pas, the filmmakers manage to once again use this often-blundering panda to teach some important lessons. Among them is a positive example of friendship, a strong affirmation of adoption (remember Po’s dad, the goose?), and an emphasis on not letting bad experiences excuse one’s behavior or destroy one’s life in the present.
There’s a flipside to one of these messages, too, and it isn’t a good one. The way that Po and his advisors say one can shake the oppressive hold of a painful past is essentially by an exertion of self-will, by making a conscious choice to be someone else in the present. This idea obviously won’t hold water in real-life application, and encourages the popular worldview that one’s present and future can be controlled entirely by personal choice and effort.
Such self-reliance is not a new concept in the Panda series, as the same ideology was rampant in the first film. This emphasis isn’t surprising, since Panda 2 includes the same big problem for Christians and parents—the Eastern religion teachings that go hand-in-hand with the kung fu. Just as central as the theme of familial love and creating one’s own identity is the quest to gain “inner peace.” Presented by the kung fu master as the highest of achievements, the elusive inner peace becomes Po’s desire, and he earnestly seeks it, trying to force himself to have it when he is instead flooded with worries, doubts, and memories.
Inner peace, found in this story through meditation and control of the mind, is set forth not only as something blissful that one can and should work to attain, but also as the key to “harness the flow of the universe.” Through the mystical elements suggested in this film, this power enables one to conquer the past, fear, and evil—all by drawing from the strength within oneself.
Added to this theme of inner peace and spiritual power through mind control is the problematic element of a new character to this film—a “soothsayer.” Several times in the movie, this soothsayer sees into, and thereby predicts, the future.
If these Buddhist and spiritualistic elements are explained by parents as fictional and treated in the way one would treat a fantasy story, then the potential harm for children may be evaded. But since this content is rooted in an actual false religion and is presented as something that everyone has the power within themselves to achieve, the danger here is greater than with the typical fantasy film and should be treated accordingly.
The almost worshipful aspect of kung fu is also evident in the two-fold purpose of Po’s mission in this film. On the one hand, Po sometimes proclaims that he and his friends must seek justice by defeating Shen. More often and with greater sincerity, Po and his counselors make it clear that their primary goal is instead the preservation of kung fu. Shen’s plot includes the obliteration of the kung fu masters, which is naturally of great concern for Po and the other kung fu experts, but defending kung fu is unfortunately more important to the heroes of Panda 2 than the more noble aspirations of defeating evil and seeing that justice is done.
The remaining area of concern is another natural pairing with the kung fu world—violence. The violence is of an unusually high amount for a children’s picture, earning the film’s PG rating. It is not, however, particularly realistic or graphic. The fights do include one stabbing (we see the sword thrown and the victim fall) along with countless punches, kicks, jabs, and unrealistically long plummets from great heights (which never seem to kill anyone).
There are plenty of “ow’s” that can be heard, but no blood or drawn-out pain. In principal, this violence is redeemed by the fact that the heroes of this tale only really hurt the villains, who are engaged in attacking the “good guys” or performing other villainous deeds. Yet such a degree of violence is still inappropriate in a children’s movie, and this story pushes the envelope with the telling of several murders (all committed by the story’s villain, none of the killings are actually shown).
The talented animators likely could not resist the chance to show off their skills in fast-paced fight sequences and to capture the essence of live-action kung fu movies. Visually, Panda 2 is indeed a feast for the eyes, as the animation is superbly executed, resulting in impressive locations and the kind of fluid excitement that only this form can achieve by allowing what is impossible in the physical world.
In production values, including an entertaining script and excellent animation, Panda 2 is a successful follow-up to the first film and does its predecessor proud. With the reduction in offensive and crude humor, the comedy also offers more wholesome amusement this time around. Panda 2 even conveys a few uplifting messages that aren’t ruined by the usual type of negative content slipped into modern kids’ films.
The disappointing part of what would otherwise be a great movie comes with the heavy dose of violence and emphasis on the Eastern religion philosophies and worldview. This latter downside is serious enough to drag the whole film, and the unsuspecting child who sees it, far away from the positives that could have otherwise been gleaned from Panda 2.
If there’s a third installment in this series, we can hope that it will ease off on the mystical and Buddhist elements. But, I think it far more likely that I will achieve inner peace through the power of my mind before that change will occur.
Check out these movies instead:
The Incredibles (Pixar, 2004)
Monsters, Inc. (Pixar, 2001)
The Rescuers (Disney, 1977)