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Feb 7, 2012

Oscars 2012: Making a Case for 'Kung Fu Panda 2'

The widely-accepted definition of an Oscar-worthy movie is a bit stiff. We think of "prestige" movies—high drama, electric performances, socially conscience material, themes that speak blatantly to the universality of mankind. High art—a label an animated sequel starring Jack Black as a kung fu wielding panda would rarely garner.

But what's a qualifier for "Best" when it comes to movie awards? If it's delivering the difficult balance between goofy, kid-friendly comedy and tender moments of drama in an elegantly produced picture bursting with color and energy (and I believe that is a qualifier for "Best"), than Kung Fu Panda 2 is one of 2011's stand out entries. The movie, up for the Best Animated award alongside Rango, Dreamsworks other 2011 movie Puss in Boots, the Spanish-language film Chico & Rita and France's A Cat in Paris, continues the story of Po (Jack Black), a panda who started as the black sheep of his town, only to rise up to legendary martial arts warrior and save the day. In the sequel, Po and his band of do-gooders, the Furious Five, are tasked by their master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), to stop a rising force of evil. Shen (Gary Oldman), a nasty peacock with a serious hatred for pandas, has harnessed the power of explosives and aims to take over the world—unless, of course, Po and the Furious Five can put the kibosh on his plans.

When the original Kung Fu Panda hit theaters in 2008, it came as a bit of a shock. Dreamworks Animation had long lived in Disney/Pixar's shadow as a company that was banking on the low-brow standards of Shrek and its anthropomorphized, cartoon animal carbon copies. But Kung Fu Panda had a level of maturity—still packed with comedy, but with the added perks of kinetic direction, emotional storytelling and stylistic cinematic choices. Kung Fu Panda 2 continues that trend and one-ups its predecessor, with action sequences that rival any live-action movie in the past year (perhaps even ranking above Steven Spielberg's motion-captured Tintin) while logically segueing into a truthful next chapter of Po's journey as a character. Women are afforded a shameful amount of opportunities to tackle big-budget spectacles in Hollywood (in 2011, only five wide-releases were directed by women, only two live-action), so to see director Jennifer Yuh knock the sequel out of the park, with slick camera movements and aggressive fight choreography, is even more inspiring. The movie takes full advantage of its unrestrained form and blows it to smithereens, with a scale and speed that only animation could begin to attempt. No surprise that Yuh took home the Directing Award at this year's Annies.

Kung Fu Panda 2 has a lot of flash, but its dramatic hook is what elevates the film to truly "Oscar-worthy." In the first movie, Po was dealing with the expectations of the world around him as he dreamed of becoming a kung fu master. In number two, the hungry panda confronts his past, the extinction of his race by his nemesis (Po was the lone survivor of Shen's panda genocide) and how he ended up as Dragon Warrior. The strength of the movie's heartfelt message comes from Jack Black's physical inhabitance of Po. That may sounds ridiculous—especially considering the best of the best voice performances barely muster their accolades, let alone "Actor" awards—but what Black is able to convey with voice, combined with the animated expressions of his fluffy counterpart, breathes reality into the pixelated presentation. Same goes for Oldman as Shen, who displays as much vigor in Panda 2 as he does in his Oscar-nominated Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy role. He's a ruthless villain, but one with lyricism and brains, making his ambition to rule with an iron thumb that much creepier. The exquisite acting is another testament to Yuh's work as a filmmaker too. She brings warmth and consideration to quiet scenes of introspection, in an environment that can be maliciously branded and demeaned as a "kid's movie." Her use of 2-D animation in Po's flashbacks is an exhilarating change of pace and a clear indication Yuh's savvy sensibilities.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is nothing less than underestimated and under-appreciated in the Oscar game. The film is not an awards contender in the broad sense of the race, but the top prizes if it came down to quality, compassion and artistry, Kung Fu Panda 2 would put up a good fight.

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