Ninjas Vs. Pirates
Nowadays, Hollywood films tend to fit into one of three categories: an original story, an adaptation of a popular TV show/video game/already released film, or a sequel/threequel/fourquel. The latter usually carries a heavy burden of continuing the storyline and characters that the audience have become associated with, whilst making the situation feel fresh and original. Recently, the two newest instalments of popular franchises were released to the cinema-going public. One has recently broken the $1 billion worldwide box-office mark, whereas the other has received near-worldwide critical praise.
I found the first Kung Fu Panda to be an absolute delight, and believe that it is the best animated film that Dreamworks have done, closely followed by How To Train Your Dragon. The comedy was sharp, the animation was crisp and the voice acting was performed brilliantly, especially Dustin Hoffman's Master Shifu. Thankfully the sequel more than matches its predecessor.
The disgraced and tyrannical peacock Lord Shen (brilliantly voiced by Gary Oldman) has created the world's first cannon and threatens to take over China by defeating any Kung Fu Master that stands in his way and make Kung Fu obsolete. Po travels with the Furious Five to defeat Shen, whilst attempting to learn about his origin and attain inner peace.
The first Kung Fu Panda earned my respect for making a children's film that the whole family could enjoy; Po might have been a tubby lovable oaf for kids to laugh at and there were bright shiny colours to amaze them, but there were often instances of mature friendship between the Master Shifu and his apprentice Po, quite deep conversation on the nature of the Universe and the occasional sarcastic side glances given by someone unimpressed by the chubby panda. It was able to mix both adult and child-orientated humour perfectly, which is something that steadily drifted away within the Shrek franchise. Kung Fu Panda 2, on the other hand, not only manages to maintain that balance, but also feature genuine heart-tugging moments when delving into Po's back story and contain much more mature content; I can't really see Shrek 5 dealing with the genocide of ogres, nor Cars 3 showing the terrible tragedy of a Mother Jeep sacrificing her life for her only baby.
As well as handling the subject matter delicately and professionally, the creators of Kung Fu Panda also treated the setting with respect as well, not succumbing to making the film into a stereotype. Instead, the whole Kung Fu philosophy and Chinese ancestry is taken seriously and honoured in significant ways. Whilst Panda started the film with a dream sequence shown in an Anime-style, Panda 2 starts with shadow puppets telling the story of Lord Shen's dark origin.
Away from the sometimes-serious storyline and authentic setting, the film is still incredibly enjoyable and fun. Jack Black continues playing a panda version of Jack Black, although the side characters receive a bit more fleshing out, especially Angelina Jolie's Master Tigress. The animation is as crisp as ever, and the 3D technology finally does make a difference, with quite a few instances being improved with high-flying acrobatics and weapons being chucked in the direction of the audience.
Despite its cutesy appearance, Kung Fu Panda 2 sits very highly in my personal opinion and I think that when 2012 comes around, this will be known as the Animated Comedy Of 2011. Dreamworks can gladly quote me on their DVD box-art.
Now on to Disney's latest and unnecessary venture into the already stagnant waters of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Like many others, I was a huge fan of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of the Black Pearl; despite being based on a theme park ride, it was something fresh and an exhilarating return to the swashbuckling films of the past, infused with an overall dry humour and topped off with an eccentric Johnny Depp performance, combining to create an overall entertaining thrill ride. However, the sequels managed to screw something that wasn't broken by introducing confusing two-dimensional side-characters (is she a bayoux-dwelling voodoo witch or the Spirit of the Sea?), elevating boring main characters to positions they would never inherit (Pirate Lord Swann?!) and having an unimpressive and non-threatening main villain behind it all. (Can you remember his name?...... Not Barbossa or Davey Jones. The other one. The small English tit with the wig. No? My point.)
But here was a chance to make things right. A new start. A way to apologise to fans of Pearl for the second and third films. The proposed beginning of a whole new trilogy. No Kia-ora. No Or-Blando. Rush and Depp were staying. Everything seemed so hopeful.
The result? Let's just say when you're halfway through a film and you reckon that what you're watching could use either of Or-Blando or Kia-ora to spice it up, it's not doing it for you.
The newest instalment of Pirates takes place immediately At World's End finished, with both Captains, Jack and Barbossa, starting to look for the long-lost Fountain of Youth. On their way, they must face adversaries such as the legendary Captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane), a Spanish fleet intent on destroying the Fountain and mythical creatures such as mermaids and voodoo-style zombies, etc etc. Anyway, on with the autopsy!
The great aspect of the original trilogy, especially the first instalment, was that Bloom and Knightly's duo were relatively new to the Pirate World. It was scary, unknown and required a guide to help them. Enter Captain Jack Sparrow. Jack knew the ins and outs of the lingo, mannerisms and code of pirates and helped the innocent couple find their way. He was the Gandalf to Frodo, Dumbledore to Harry, or Yoda to Luke. Just one that was often drunk and duplicitous. Now that the Swann/Turner collaboration have decided to hang up their corset and sword, Jack steps into the protagonist role and the film follows how he manages to wiggle out of numerous sticky situations. Hardly enthralling watching, especially when Depp's 'Pepe Le Richards' act is getting tired now. There's nothing new for Jack to learn as he easily handles himself in tough predicament after tough predicament.
The other reason I returned to the franchise was to see Geoffrey Rush continue chew more scenery as the delightfully double-crossing Captain Barbossa. He was the personal highlight of Pearl and World's End, and his inclusion into the four-quel made me excited for the potential in his new role. However, as always the case, his acting talent is squandered, being reduced to a role where he isn't really allowed free reign to evil-do like his previous performances. Instead, more screen-time is dedicated to new characters such as Penelope Cruz's bland and blatant romantic interest, and the uninteresting storyline between an abused priest and an appropriately fish-faced mermaid.
Overall, I gladly recommend the nuanced and fun animation over the pirate-filled nonsense. I see a bright future for the Kung Fu Panda franchise whereas the 'new' Pirates trilogy need vast improvement to bring it any closer to the original three.
Kung Fu Panda 2 - 9/10Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - 3/10