Watching narrative films has always been a fleeting, ephemeral experience for me. After the initial flush of excitement, each viewing slowly diminishes in standing, it’s potency ebbing away from repetition. However, on occasion a film surprises me with its depth and I’ll notice underlying subtext that I hadn’t picked up on the first or second time around. The performances breathe new life, the writing choices and shot compositions take on new meaning, and the entire experience radiates dynamic change and growth. It’s a fantastic feeling, and oddly enough the first Kung Fu Pandawas one of those experiences for me. Underneath Jack Black mugging for attention and cute kung fu zoo animals selling DreamWorks licensed action figures to children, I found an unassuming, watered down and kid accessible Taoist allegory. The film was not perfect by any means, but it had an earnest quality that I respected and it managed to be briefly moving and amusing at odd intervals during its runtime.
More importantly for the studio, the film was a financial success, and so we stand at the threshold of a franchise. Kung Fu Panda 2 begins its theatrical run enveloped in the new cloying trend of 3D, headed by first time director Jennifer Yu, who was story artist for the first series entry. A laundry list of trending Hollywood voice actors return from Kung Fu Panda, headed by Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and Angelina Jolie, while the ever versatile Gary Oldman joins the ranks as an evil peacock named Shen bent on imperial domination over both China and kung fu itself. What’s remarkable is that in the sequel, the Taoist aspect becomes so overt it’s integrated into the film’s marketable identity. The panda’s variegated black and white appearance becomes symbolic of the yin-yang symbol, an icon that is awkwardly reinforced throughout the film, ultimately manifesting itself in a burst of fireworks during the climatic finale. Jack Black’s character Po also attempts to gain a sense of inner peace, coping with newfound knowledge of being adopted and not remembering the tragedy of his upbringing. Po, being a fairly uncomplicated character, simply chants the shallow mantra ‘inner peace’ over and over again, while modest bursts of kung fu sequences and evil peacock monologues take the foreground.
There is a simplicity to the film that hurts its ambition as a sequel. It is too aware of what it is trying to be and the progression of Po’s plodding spiritual path is less engaging the second time around. As a general rule, a sequel needs to take the series to new heights, to challenge its characters in progressively complex ways, the entire franchise taking the likeness of a single orchestral piece that balances calm waning moments and frenetic surges, ending each film on an increasingly deafening crescendo. If this is the case, Kung Fu Panda manages to echo the self-realization of the first film with few significantly new developments. Po relearns the principles of letting go, wu wei, action through inaction, strength through weakness, embodying the paradoxical nature of the Tao. The inclusion of the personal is a nice touch, because it emphasizes the struggle to attain balance when confronted with severe internal conflict, but truthfully the epiphany at the end of this film feels like deja vu and it hurts the overall impact.
With that said, the film is so well intentioned that it still manages to impart an honest sense of wisdom to its audience. This is where Kung Fu Panda 2 triumphs, its plot merely acting as complimentary background noise. It’s a testament to the tenets of eastern philosophical thought that Hollywood’s death grip on the film’s Taoist portrait as trademark is not strong enough to abate the honest sensibility of its message. For instance, Po achieves inner peace through the acceptance of his violent past, the knowledge that his entire village was slaughtered by the irascible peacock antagonist who has acted on the prescient words of a soothsayer, sealing his fate in true Greek tragic fashion. In this way, Po accepts the wisdom proposed in the Tao Te Ching, where Lao-Tzu writes ‘Gravity is the root of lightness, stillness is the master of passion.’ The concept of embracing peace and tranquility through pain is remarkable enough for any film to approach. However, for a children’s film it is an astounding accomplishment, in no small part due to how seamless the notion is conveyed amidst Jack Black one-liners and beautifully animated, adorable stuffed animal kung fu showdowns.
More importantly, when Po finally confronts the formidable Shen and defeats him effortlessly, he holds no grudge against him. He tells the sulking bird that the past is useless to hold on to, that the present is all that matters. This is a sentiment that was iterated by Master Oogway in the first film (i.e. wizened kung fu turtle), who slowly uttered the clichéd adage of ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the “present”.’ However, in this film, the inclination of staying mindful in the present loses its trite sentimentality, as Po abandons any notion of grief or vengeance. This is a concept that adults can struggle with, and yet here it is, an easily processable plot point for a film that is above anything a story for children. To be honest, I wanted to be surprised again by Kung Fu Panda 2, I wanted it to capture that rare moment of awe when an animated film transcends age, as Wall-E and Spirited Away have managed so well in the past. Kung Fu Panda 2 never gets there, it never feels like a step above its predecessor, never feels like anything more than a passing amusement. However, I imagine the film would mean more through the gaze of childhood nostalgia, where the elegant beauty of intent comes through clearly and succinctly.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.