17 June 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2 Review

The second coming of Po the Dragon Warrior (and also panda) never seemed like a good idea to me. That first movie was so complete, so visually dazzling, witty and inventive, but more importantly, self-contained, that it didn’t seem like the franchise builder that Dreamworks, back in October ’08, announced that it was going to be. It’s been a while since I’ve been happy to be proved wrong, and by ‘eck, Kung Fu Panda goes about it with serious aplomb.

Going the Toy Story 2 route of sequel stories, it ups the emotional stakes and the scale, whilst at the same time managing to focus on character arcs that are distinctly fleshed out and interesting. Specifically to this, too, there are quite a few bold moves, particularly for a movie that is ostensibly aimed at children – from dealing with genocide to a reasonable effort to remove the on-the-nose nature of the original’s message.

The story goes that the mythical land of China has come under threat by none other than a rather vengeful peacock named Shen, who plans on using gunpowder and technology in an attempt to force the various kung-fu masters to submit to his reign. Staging his coup, it’s down to Po and the Furious Five to stop him, only they can’t until Po finds his inner peace, and becomes a true kung fu master. There’s also the question of quite how Shen and Po’s histories are intertwined, and details of this a slowly drip fed to us throughout.

It’s a logical continuation – legendary warriors continue to protect their country – but it’s beautifully thought out, with the exact nature of Po’s past being both intellectually and emotionally engaging, thanks to some superb animation work that very nearly makes you forgot that you’re looking at anthropomorphic animals. There’s also a depiction of Po as a cub that is so aggressively cute that if an ‘awww!’ doesn’t escape from your face, you probably left your soul in the popcorn stand.

The cast are all superb, with the Furious Five in particular allowed to shine rather more than they were in the previous movie. Angelina Jolie gets most of the meaty dialogue as Tigress, but even David Cross and Lucy Liu as Crane and Viper respectively have their moments in the spotlight. Jack Black brings his usual slacker charm to Po, but best of all is Gary Oldman as the rather psychotic Shen, his evilness tempered by a slick charm and sly wit that makes him one of the most intriguing villains in animation of late.

But the real star of the piece is the rather magical direction from Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who was responsible for the rather excellent shadow-puppet style dream sequence in the first movie, and makes her feature debut here. With the assured hand of a veteran, she blends CG with absolutely gorgeous, traditionally animated segments, as well as upping the game with the actions sequences – a scramble up a gargantuan collapsing tower and a showdown in a metal works being the two highlights.

To summarise, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a triumph. A sequel that is not only better than its predecessor, but one of the best animated movies since Toy Story 3. It works on a comedy front – there are at the very least five belly laughs in the film – an action movie front and indeed on a character development front, and if the ending of the film is to be believed, then a third instalment is an incredibly tantalising prospect. But for now, see this movie. It’s...well, awesome.

15 June 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides Review

I can’t say that I went into On Stranger Tides with high hopes. All the other film critics – both budding and professional – that I’m a follower of haven’t exactly rated it highly. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that my expectations were more or less at rock bottom. So when I say that I was still disappointed, I hope I get across my full meaning.

Okay, I’ll come out and say it. The latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie is...well, boring. Not bad – it’s had far too much money thrown at it to ever be considered truly bad – but completely lacking in the sense of fun and silliness that even the second and third movies retained from the first, despite getting totally bogged down in the close to impenetrable web of deception and betrayal that it was trying to pass off as a story.

Here, that web is tangled thicker than ever, and the writers and director both seem un-fussed about carrying it to any sort of sensible conclusion. The story continues from the end of the last one – or does it? One can hardly be sure – with Jack in captivity awaiting trial for his many crimes. He escapes – hardly a spoiler – and heads off in search of the fountain of youth. Only he’s not the only one after it – well, he is at first, but then suddenly everyone from the Spanish Armada to the feared Pirate Blackbeard gets wind of it and wants in.
But none of them have a clearly defined motive besides ‘I want it’. Okay, so they’re all pirates or blaggards to a man, but there’s no fleshing out of their reasoning behind the venture beyond that most basic of premises, and this gives the movie a distinct lack of urgency, because the filmmakers fail to invest us in any of characters – both positively for the good guys and negatively for the villains. What’s more, there’s a deep, deep lack of consistency between this ‘plot’ and those of the first three films – characters that are carried over seem to have simply forgotten most of what happened.

Particularly uncomfortable is Barbossa’s transition from angry and slightly mad ex-undead pirate captain to fawning, idiotic privateer. Geoffrey Rush does his best, but the writers – and also, bizarrely, the makeup department – have managed to render him completely inert by passing him through a character and appearance change that is simply not in keeping with what was the second-most interesting character of the first three films.

But most cripplingly, the director Rob Marshall seems completely out of his depth. As with Quantum of Solace, the producers deemed fit to bring a dramatic director on board what was, in essence, an action franchise. Say what you will about Gore Verbinski, the man knew his way around a set piece. Rob Marshall has no such talent – his action sequences lack the charm, wit and velocity of Verbinski’s - but what’s more, he fails on both the technical and dramatic fronts as well. There’s a laundry list of continuity errors, strange camera angles and bizarrely structured dialogue sequences, all contributing to a movie that completely lacks any sense of pace. And at over two hours long, you’re going to feel every minute of it dragging past.

There are a few nice moments here and there – and they are, for the most part, when the writers momentarily remember that they’ve got an entire three-films worth of backstory to draw on – but they're so few and far between that’ll you’ll simply forget them amid the quagmire of turgidity being flung towards you. See it only if you think they can do better with a fifth one, otherwise, avoid.