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Kung Fu Panda 2

It has been an underwhelming year so far at the movies. By this time last year, I had given out a good number of perfect or near perfect scores, but 2011 has disappointed me. Films like Rango and Source Code have stood proud as the best this year has offered, yet neither of them were truly great. I’ve been waiting many months for a movie to come along and really impress me, something that can make me laugh, cry and excite me all at the same time. That movie has finally come in the form of Kung Fu Panda 2. It’s a tour de force, a real achievement in not just animation, but filmmaking in general and it proves once and for all that animation can be just as funny, unique and emotionally gripping as live action cinema. Let’s just put it this way. If this were released last year, Toy Story 3 would have had a run for its money.

When we last saw Po (Jack Black), he was learning to be a kung fu master. He was inexplicably deemed the Dragon Warrior and was tasked with the responsibility of defeating an impending evil heading his way. Because of his large stature and clumsy mannerisms, he was ridiculed by the Furious Five, who refused to believe he held the power to protect their people. They were wrong, of course, and now Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross) and Viper (Lucy Liu) have accepted them into their clan. But a kung fu warrior’s work is never done and a new evil has emerged in the form of Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock determined to take over China.

It must be said that Kung Fu Panda 2 is a sequel of the “if it ain’t broke…” variety. The original film was a solid piece of work in itself and it would be foolish to mess with the formula too much. However, just because something isn’t broke doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked and made better and that’s precisely what was done here. Kung Fu Panda 2 is funnier and more exciting than the original and its heart seems to have grown tenfold.

Throughout this film’s brief hour and a half runtime, Po goes on a journey of self discovery that is more profound than anything presented in the first movie. As he ventures into battle, he begins to have visions of his family, giving him a desire to learn who he is and where he came from. His discoveries aren’t always pleasant, however, which gives the film an unexpected darker tone than its predecessor. It deals with the idea of making the right choice, even if it’s not the easy one. To elaborate would constitute spoilers, but you will undoubtedly feel sadness for Po as he learns the inescapable truth of his past.

That’s not to say Kung Fu Panda 2 is all dark. It still retains the playful exuberance that made the first movie so darn enjoyable. Also returning is the vibrant and distinctive animation (even when obfuscated by the 3D glasses) that seamlessly transitions from lush computer animation to hand drawn sequences that appropriately elicit the feeling of Chinese shadow puppetry. Perhaps best of all is that the characters are just as charming as you remember. Po is still the awkward, hunger fueled jokester you remember him as. He’s just a little more agile and skilled than before. He also shows more confidence, having been accepted as a legitimate kung fu master, and isn’t afraid to spout off one-liners that are hilariously used to parody various action movie clichés.

The Furious Five that accompany Po are better handled as well. Rather than endlessly make fun of him as they did in the first film, they now see him as a part of their family. It creates a sense of camaraderie among the crew and gives them more sympathetic personalities. The most surprising character, however, comes in the form of Lord Shen, who at first glance is too graceful to be threatening—after all, a peacock isn’t the most ferocious animal on the planet—but looks can be deceiving. He may not have the physical presence of the last film’s antagonist, but he is nevertheless ruthless and destructive. He delights in chaos and will stop at nothing to get what he wants. It’s a cold, calculated approach to villainy, just one of many aspects the filmmakers have carefully thought through.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is a wonderful movie. It works on so many different levels, from the pleasing aesthetics to the unbelievable action, that it’s practically guaranteed to please everybody who watches it. While the children they bring will surely enjoy it, adults in the audience may find something deeper hidden in what looks like an otherwise simple tale. To summarize this review, Kung Fu Panda 2 is flat out amazing.

Kung Fu Panda 2 receives 5/5


The Karate Kid

There are lots of movies that can define a childhood. For some, The Wizard of Oz rings in their heads. For those perhaps a little less sophisticated, that first Mighty Morphin Power Rangers flick might be their fondest memory. Ask people my age what they grew up with and they may tell you the 1984 classic, The Karate Kid. Having seen that many times as a child, but none in recent years, I walked into the 2010 remake hesitant. Would fond memories of that film come flooding back to me as I watched or would it be able to carve out its own little place in my mind and work on its own terms? Well, I’m happy to report it was the latter. The Karate Kid remake is a fine film and those doubting it will live up to the original may have quite a shock coming.

The kid this time around is played by Jaden Smith. His name is Dre Parker and he is being forced to move from Detroit to China by his mother Sherry, played by Taraji P. Henson, who has just been transferred overseas by her employer, so he’s stuck there no matter how much he hates it, which is quite a bit. As soon as he arrives, the first day in fact, he gets beaten up by a nasty kid named Cheng, played ferociously by Zhenwei Wang. His life is hell and every day he lives with the fear of Cheng and his gang giving him a follow-up beating. One day while on the run, he meets Mr. Han, played by Jackie Chan, who saves him and puts the kids in their place. It turns out that they learned their craft from a local teacher, a mean guy whose motto is “No Weakness. No Pain. No Mercy.” But Han believes that kung-fu should be used for peace, not war and decides to talk to the teacher, only to enter Dre into the approaching kung-fu tournament, taking it upon himself to teach the boy discipline and hard work, thus making him strong enough to fight and protect himself.

The Karate Kid starts out weak. It’s one of those films that promises very little upon initial glance. The first scene shows Dre and his mother abruptly moving out, but not before showing us that his dad has died, seemingly begging for us to feel bad for him already. When he arrives in China, he makes a friend a bit too quickly and immediately meets a pretty girl. It’s this girl that helps him meet his bully. Even this is a little ridiculous. Cheng looks in no way intimidating and his dead cold stares only elicit laughter. The “bad guy” looks like little more than a wimp. But as they say, looks can be deceiving. As soon as he lands his first blow on Dre, your perception of him immediately changes. This kid means business and throughout the film the young actor does a terrific job of keeping the menace. He’s a sickly violent little creature and by the time the end rolls around, you’ll be begging to see him get his comeuppance.

Dre, on the other hand, is a good kid and wants only to be left alone. He’s scared out of his wits after his first encounter with Cheng and, similarly, looks like a wimp. But Jaden Smith, the offspring of the extremely talented Will Smith, does a terrific job. He’s of small body type, but his heart is big and he proves that you don’t necessarily need hulking muscles to fight, only a passion and desire to face your demons and prove your worth. Jaden is a natural in front of the camera and I feel comfortable saying he’s one of the best child stars working today.

But what really surprises here is Jackie Chan. After a string of “what was he thinking?” films, he’s finally back at the top of his game, but that isn’t the surprise. That comes from the fact that he actually has to act, and he's great. In his other American films, he merely has to kick and punch while smiling and cracking jokes, but here he has to emote and one scene in particular is heartbreaking. He took a role from the beloved Pat Morita in the original and made it his own, creating what is essentially a whole new character that thinks and feels and loves.

The film comes with faults, however. It chugs along for nearly two hours and fifteen minutes, a runtime far too long for a movie of this type, and drags in places, which could have been rectified had the romantic angle with the aforementioned pretty girl been dropped. Outside of one excellent scene late in the movie, the whole romance felt out of place and, frankly, a little weird.

But don’t tell that to the audience I was watching it with. I’ve never seen so much adulation for a film coming from the crowd. They were rooting for Dre the whole way, clapping at every hit landed on his foe and cheering for his victories. Indeed, it was a fun experience that I’m glad I had.

My thoughts on the trailer went back and forth prior to my screening. Sometimes it looked good. At other times it looked bad. But all of that doesn’t matter now. The final product is outstanding. The Karate Kid is an excellent film and is one of the biggest surprises of the year.

The Karate Kid receives 4/5


The Spy Next Door

Remember when Jackie Chan was still cool? I do. I remember watching him as I grew up. I loved how agile he seemed to be, effortlessly flying through the air performing some of the most amazing acrobatic martial arts I had ever seen. I loved his charm and his sense of humor about things. He was a guy I wanted to hang out with. Sure, his most recent American films have suffered from poor scripts and unfunny one-liners, most notably Shanghai Knights, The Tuxedo and the third Rush Hour, but I still find myself rooting for the guy. His 2008 outing, The Forbidden Kingdom, proved that he was still more than capable of delivering the trademark action and humor he is known for. But then he follows it up with this year's wretched The Spy Next Door, a kid's comedy with one genuine laugh and about 50 irritated groans.

The Spy Next Door follows a fairly routine plot used in a number of other movies about a secret spy who is forced to babysit a handful of little brats that hate him. You'll forgive me if I haven't seen any of them. When I sit down for a Vin Diesel movie, my first inkling isn't to reach for The Pacifier. Anyway, this film plays off that formula, this time starring Jackie Chan as Bob Ho, a Chinese operative on loan to the CIA. He is dating his next door neighbor, Gillian, played by Amber Valletta, but her kids loathe him. He's too "uncool." They think he is a pen importer, but they aren't aware of his secret. After capturing his arch-nemesis early in the movie, he retires so he can spend more time with Gillian and warm up to her kids. Well, Gillian's father is in the hospital and she has to leave town for a few days. Bob thinks this is the perfect opportunity and volunteers to watch over the children, to which she reluctantly agrees. Unfortunately, his nemesis has escaped and is on his way to find Bob.

As you can imagine, the following scenes consist of tired slapstick, constant back talk from the snotty children, and Jackie Chan trying to act hip, doing things that would be embarrassing for even the lowliest of actors, much less a martial artist of his stature. If the mostly silent child audience I watched this with is any indication, this film is a complete failure.

This is due to many reasons, but one is the utter lack of laughs thanks to a piss poor script and Chan's inability to break the language barrier, stumbling over his English like a first time speaker teaching phonetics. You could readily tell a few of his lines were re-recorded in post-production, probably due to this problem.

In romance movies, one tends to talk about chemistry between the two lead actors, but it seems a bit frivolous here as that really isn't the main draw of the movie. Still, each scene between Chan and Valletta was awkward to the point where I felt bad for the actors onscreen. Watching them try to act together and seeing Chan plant his mid-fifty year old lips on a pretty woman 20 years younger than him gave me an unsettling chill down my spine that cannot easily be explained.

The one thing I took a mild liking to was the cheeky James Bond-ish vibe, complete with an enemy with a scar under his eye and his seductive Russian sidekick. The only problem is that they merely exist. There isn't much of a parody here other than that, so the only minor enjoyment this film has going for it becomes moot by the 30 minute mark.

I haven't spent too much time focusing on putting my thoughts together in an articulate way because I don't feel it's necessary to grant this film more effort than it took to put the thing together. No care was put into any of this, aiming only to cheaply exploit the emotions of easily amused children. It's only fair that I care as little. This isn't as bad as the horrific Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, but "bad" takes on many levels. The Spy Next Door is still unwatchable.

The Spy Next Door receives 1/5