How disdainfully did I snicker when I first played this film out of desperation and exhaustion for a couple of elementary-school tutorees who had for several weeks running refused to speak to me during our hour-long classes, snorting at the first lines—“Find more metal!”—and failing to see at all through my prejudices. This is a kid’s movie, I thought. Unworthy of my austere grandeur.
It took two or three more viewings to realize that something remarkable was present in this film. For months I had been showing a battery of Disneys and Pixars to my very young son, sticking to the dictum proffered to me by some philosophical friends that you should only let your kids watch what you yourself enjoy. Though he slept through a lot of these he seemed to like them, never requesting to see them again after we had finished.
Then came the Panda. After the original and the sequel ended he would sit through the credits and then shriek at the top of his lungs when the black screen finally shrank back down to the desktop, wailing the word “Panda!” over and over again as bright tears streamed down his cheeks, punching me or my wife as we tried to comfort him, his mouth soaked in pitiably viscous snot. Dreading this inevitable breakdown, I would sometimes play both films back-to-back, but he would still collapse as though we had abandoned him when the credits finally ceased their inevitable rolling. He asks me to let him watch this movie at least a dozen times every day.
Kung Fu Panda 2, understand, is not just a gorgeous work of art; it’s a film that supposes the future of cinema lies in animation. When you stick humans and computer graphics together you get this strange disconnect: some things are very real, some things are very fake, and we are not experiencing a film but sitting in a theater picking apart the imperfections of the actors (who have no idea what lies beyond their blue screens) and the graphics, which are bound to be outdated in a couple of months anyway. Not so with the Panda. Here everything is fake, and therefore everything is real.
Where else, after all, can you see a tiger and a panda leaping up the tiers of a collapsing, skyscraping pagoda, catching flaming arrows in their paws before sailing through the night like specters? How could a live-action human being possibly pull off the trick of using t’ai chi to deflect raindrops and cannonballs, whirling like a yinyang above a boiling ocean? Here the rays of the sun shine and swell as they never could in the real world while six animals leap together down an impossible precipice, aiming their fists and wings and tails at a band of marauding wolves: their mannerisms too sometimes leap across that vast uncanny valley, becoming more human than human. The Panda rolls his eyes back with his chin, shouting “Come on!”, and for an instant he really is a talking panda and he really is trying to convince a buffalo and an alligator to help liberate an occupied city. A thousand more similar feats-in-miniature lie inside these frames. I see more and more on each viewing; I grow more fascinated with this film each time my son forces me to watch it.
But it’s true the script is flawed. Though there are a few good lines—“Nothing’s unstoppable except for me stopping you from telling me something’s unstoppable!”—it isn’t as funny as the first film. It doesn’t do justice to the animation. The poor gorillas with glowing green eyes are crying out for a moment to reveal themselves as independent beings rather than stock henchmen, but they never get beyond shouting “My nose!” when the peacock scratches them in anger. And the peacock! This villain’s motivations, as usual, make no sense—he tried to prevent his fate by killing all the pandas, but his parents got angry and banished him for thirty years, and now he’s back and he wants to rule China because that will somehow make him feel better (and meanwhile his parents have vanished without explanation, preventing him from embarking on any sort of journey of self-discovery because the movie has to be about the panda and not the peacock)—he really is just evil for evil’s sake, and rather than redeeming himself at the end he lashes out before committing suicide. This movie also has a number of strange things to say about masculinity and fatherhood; the panda’s dad, a goose, is really just a fawning mother with a man’s voice.
I could talk about this movie forever, and I’ve seen it, like, eight times now, so I more or less know it by heart, and quote it to myself on occasion—I can’t quote it to anyone else around here!—the Vivaldesque music looping through my brain throughout the day—but my son is awake and I have to go!