Why Kung Fu Panda 2 isn’t Fully Awesome

The Red Star posse went to see Kung Fu Panda 2 recently.  We all really enjoyed it; and some of us declared it pretty awesome; but for me it was disappointing. Why? Because the story was rubbish.

Let’s deal with something up front: Kung Fu Panda 2 is a fantastically produced animated film.  Visually, every single aspect of it is superb; from the art direction to the design of the characters and sets, the animated performances, lighting, visual effects, staging, camerawork and editing.  I don’t doubt hundreds of fantastically talented artists sweated for years to refine and polish every aspect of this movie, burning through a production budget of a reported $150 million.  At the end of the movie there was a credit for about 20 people as “story artists” but for the love of heaven I don’t know what they all did, as the story could have been sketched on the back of a napkin in about 20 minutes.

Why didn’t the story work for me? Because the central character Po’s journey seemed forced, with no real change occurring to him.  The film set up a bunch of issues he needed to resolve: his relationship with his adoptive father and to “find inner peace” but these seem to really affect him that much (the latter is used just as a phrase, he doesn’t really have a problem) and are totally unconnected to the plot that presently emerges: that baddie Lord Shen is kicking off and trying to take over China. Po eventually defeats Shen, but you don’t really get that he’s changed at all.  Jim Hull has a much better analysis over on his site at Story Fanatic.

The question emerges: do we care? Most of Red Star came out of the movie and declared it amazing and, as I’ve elaborated above in terms of its production it’s truly dazzling.  It’s already made a ton of money and will doubtless spawn a couple more sequels.  But compare it with 2010’s How To Train Your Dragon, which delivers the same level of action and comedy but really engages with the emotional arc of its central character. The upshot: at the end of King Fu Panda 2 I felt like I’d been strapped to some kind of intensely pretty and exciting roller coaster for 90 minutes; at the end of How To Train Your Dragon I had the exact same feeling but I also felt I’d had an emotional experience that really moved me.

If someone had just spent a bit of time working out the script of King Fu Panda 2 it could have been fantastic, and the ending which was kind of neat could have been amazing; maybe then it would have truly been Fully Awesome.

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