Why defy gravity when you can make it work in your favour?
For a long while, Dreamworks played second fiddle to Pixar in the animated feature stakes, with movies skewed towards the adult demographic through the use of celebrity voices and “street smart” humour, but lacking in heart. But then they delivered Kung Fu Panda – the story of a young, adopted panda named Po, who discovers the value of self worth through a combination of dumb luck and kung fu – and Dreamworks emerged from Pixar’s shadow in a flurry of fur, feathers and awesomeness.
Yet the elation was shortlived. That Dreamworks decided to make a sequel immediately brought the cynicism back, with expectations of a cheap cash-in (which they’d already done with Secrets of the Furious Five). But like Po’s teacher, I should’ve had more faith in the power of awesomeness. Kung Fu Panda 2 is at least as good, if not better, than its predecessor.
Firstly, mad props to the writers of the original for creating a world so rich with potential that gave rise to this new story. Did you notice in the first one that Po was the only panda? I didn’t. But Panda 2 starts to elaborate on that tale, working it into a much larger story that takes the story from that of a panda trying to save his town from the evil Tai Long, to trying to save the whole of China (and kung fu) against the threat of Lord Shen and his arsenal of weapons equipped with gunpowder.
What I loved most was the attention to detail in the character designs. Everything about them, from their form to the way that they moved, showed the care and craftsmanship that went into them, resulting in characterisations that in the real world, would be analogous to great acting. The humour was also razor sharp, recalling many of the gags from the first movie (e.g. the heart-to-heart between Po and his dad), and delivering completely new and unexpected punchlines that make the joke even funnier the second time around.
Sadly, the movie ends with the promise of a sequel, although maybe just this once, I might park my cynicism.
The final showdown
Cast aside your doubts: the fourth and final chapter in the series isn’t too bad, although I must admit I may be slightly influenced by the fact that I got my tickets for free through work (I probably wouldn’t have watched it otherwise). It’s also mercifully short, with Shrek dealing with the consequences of signing a magical contract with Rumpelstiltskin and dealing with his domestic problems, all in a brisk 93 minutes.
The contract grants Shrek one day where he can return to being a real ogre, loathed and feared by the humans, and in exchange, the trickster Rumpelstiltskin takes one day from Shrek’s past. Naturally, there’s a built in gotcha, and the day that “Rumpel” takes is the day on which Shrek was born, thereby changing everything – Shrek never rescues Fiona, and her parents sign the rights to the land of Far Far Away over to the trickster in the misplaced hope that he could help save their daughter.
You could say that Forever After is a reboot of sorts. Shrek starts out alone all over again, and the movie loses all of the excess baggage accumulated through the earlier sequels. Other favourites like Donkey and Puss-in-Boots are also given clean slates, so that even the occasional rehashed joke felt fresh again.
But it’s not all good news. The original Shrek kicked off the franchise as a kids movie with adult smarts – the inverse fairytale of the ugly ogre who turns out to be the hero – but as the series progressed, the grown-up humour and story elements encroached further and further, until the point where we now have an adult movie that has the occasional amusing bit for kids. It’s still presented as a kids movie (especially with the pointless, gimmicky 3D), but the main theme deals with Shrek’s mid-life crisis, and there’s a scene where sexy witches dance to Beasty Boys music in a pseudo nightclub. Riiiiiiight.
Dreamworks just doesn’t get it. The original Shrek was charming and original, but Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third proved that they had no idea why, by dishing up smarm dressed up as charm. In spite of the above gripes though, I enjoyed this chapter more than the previous two because this time around I didn’t feel so much like as if the movie was watching me back with a smug grin, constantly digging me with its elbows going “Geddit? Geddit?”
And there’s no arguing with free.