A wise sage once told me, after reading something I had been working on, that too many characters in a script is like too many cooks in the kitchen. You know… the idiom… the cooks… they spoil the broth. Of course I was convinced he was completely full of it at the time because I knew that my broth, er script, tasted delicious. But after seeing Kung Fu Panda 2, I now know exactly what he was talking about.
Kung Fu Panda 2 starts off by introducing an entirely new set of characters, a royal family of peacocks who invented fireworks, but the heir to the throne, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), finds a more violent use for them—weapons. The Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) predicts that he will be defeated by a warrior of black and white, and so Shen murders every panda he can find. His parents are horrified, and he is exiled. Meanwhile, Po (Jack Black) is living out his dream in the Jade Palace training with the Furious Five. When Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is in the middle of instructing Po on the next phase of his training, finding inner peace, Tigress (Angelina Jolie) interrupts. Bandits are plundering Musician’s Village for metal, so Po and the gang are needed. But during what should have been a routine bandit-whooping, Po freezes up. One of the bandits was wearing an insignia that triggers a confusing flashback to an unknown past. Po begins to wonder about who he really is. However, the soul-searching must be put on hold when Shifu learns of Master Thundering Rhino’s (Victor Garber) death at the hands of Lord Shen and his powerful weapon. Po and the Furious Five must find Lord Shen and win, or else Kung Fu will die.
And that is the first ten minutes. There’s peacocks, panda genocide, a bunch of hyena-wolf type bandit-soldiers, daddy issues, metallurgy… there’s far, far too many different things going on here. And because there are so many different components, extreme attention is paid to certain seemingly inconsequential points (like Lord Shen’s need for more metal) while other points are left wholly and mystifyingly unanswered (like Shifu’s choice to stay behind even though the future of Kung Fu itself hangs in the balance).
And another thing, the story of this film is too easy, too convenient. In the first Kung Fu Panda, Po initially fails, but he keeps at it. He tries again and again. That is the theme of that film—perseverance and finding your own way. It makes sense for him to finally master what he has been trying so hard for because we saw him sweat for it, and we saw the moment when he “cracked the uncrackable nut” with Shifu’s help. But Kung Fu Panda 2 doesn’t deliver in that regard. There are a couple of hints as to what Po must face, a whole lot of action sequences, and a touching moment with The Soothsayer—but let’s face it, while Michelle Yeoh is excellent in this role, she can’t take the place of Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu when she’s only makes an appearance in a couple of scenes. Hoffman’s Shifu had a whole movie to build that character. But after this unbelievable moment, blam! Somehow Po finds it within himself to figure it all out while at the same time resolving all of his complex identity issues. It just seems that someone, or more likely a whole plethora of someone’s, somewhere got tied up with all the goings on and didn’t take the time to untangle the knots. In so many ways, less really is more; the best stories are quite often the simplest ones. An empathetic and complex character with a clear yet formidable goal is fundamental to any good story, but a film with too many underdeveloped characters just running around “doing cool stuff” will never come home with any prizes.
This isn’t to say that the film isn’t amusing, because it is. The voice talent and the film makers really worked their buns off to come up with a lot of good on-screen gems in the face of story problems. I laughed, I cried, I was emotionally invested. But the problems of the story pulled me out of what could have been something truly amazing. If you want to see Po, Shifu, and the Furious Five kick some 3D, CGI butt, then you will enjoy this movie—especially if you wanted more Furious Five, because this one’s got ‘em. Even if you were expecting this movie to have a story as excellent as the first film’s, you will still enjoy parts of this movie, but you will also feel the hollowness that comes with too many characters paired with too little development, and the forgoing of a bit of plot in favor of action set pieces.