Wednesday, May 25, 2011

'Kung Fu Panda 2' finds inner peace. Me, not so much.

Last week I was invited to a screening at DreamWorks Animation for a preview of the upcoming animated feature 'Kung Fu Panda 2'. There was fighting, betrayal, and the triumph of good over evil. But enough about the the post-screening blogger luncheon and the brawl over the last panini – let me tell you my thoughts about the movie.

'Kung Fu Panda 2' is definitely a worthy sequel to the first film, although slightly darker in tone. The writing is crisp, funny and sophisticated while still being appropriate for kids. The animation is gorgeous (the movie is in 3D, although we screened a 2D version.) There is an adoption storyline that, while heartwarming, is intense as it deals with issues of abandonment and loss so anyone touched by adoption should be forewarned. But kids (and adults) will still love it as much as they loved the first film.

Will I recommend it to my friends? I'm still on the fence about that and I'll tell you why after a quick rundown of the plot.

This latest installment picks up where the last one left off with Po the Panda (voiced by Jack Black) using his newly-earned status as Dragon Warrior to seek out and defeat a new villain, the evil peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). Po gets help beating on the bad guys from his band of loyal kung fu master friends led by the Tigress (Angelina Jolie), while Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) continues to lead our panda friend on his spiritual journey, this time on a quest for inner peace. At the heart of the new story is Po's search for his origins that provide some touching sequences involving a baby Po. By touching I mean everyone was crying during these scenes, and how often does a cartoon make you cry? (Unless you count The Simpsons episodes that get all, 'Nothing's better than family!" I can't stop the waterworks whenever Homer and the kids hug.)

Now here's my uneasy feeling about the film. The fact that the story takes place in China, where the characters are supposed to be Chinese (albeit in animal form) and the main characters are voiced by non-Asians is a problem for me. I'm aware that it's an animated film, but the actors voicing the characters are as big a part of the film (and as widely publicized) as their animated counterparts. And during a time when whitewashing seems to be a trend, as grossly demonstrated by 'The Last Airbender' and the upcoming 'Akira', the omission of Asian actors in the lead roles is starkly apparent to me.

No one's saying Jack Black should have been replaced for the sequel – I get the value of having a proven, big-name actor in the lead. But Angelina Jolie's part could have just as effectively (if not more so) been played by Lucy Liu, who ended up having a smaller role in the film. (Liu was a Charlie's Angel so we already know she could kick some serious ass.) And no disrespect to Gary Oldman, but his villain could have been played with much more authenticity by James Hong, (or, in a timely and brilliant piece of casting - George Takei) And here's a question for Angelina, who has a son adopted from Vietnam and another from Cambodia: Wouldn't you love for your kids to see faces like their own, featured in the movies you take them to see?

Maybe my discontent is magnified because I just had the good fortune (no pun intended) of recently seeing two outstanding productions (The Chinese Massacre and Krunk Fu Battle Battle) consisting of predominately Asian casts that highlighted what a vast pool of talented Asian actors that are out there. Could be I'm still cranky from the exhaustive period following the catastrophic Japan quake and tsunami, and the inexplicable amount of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian racism that reared its ugly head. Or maybe I'm just tired of seeing Hollywood consistently shortchange Asian actors when it comes to giving them fair representation in mainstream media.

Look, I'm not calling for a boycott of the film - in fact I'm sure you'll love it and my own kids probably will, too. I just think that Dreamworks missed a valuable opportunity to do something extraordinary here, during this Asian Pacific Heritage Month, to roll out a film that bucked the trend of whitewashing and demonstrate the innovative and forward thinking they're known for. As it stands, that inner peace that Po was searching for? Something tells me I'll have to look somewhere other than 'Kung Fu Panda 2' to find it.

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'Kung Fu Panda 2' opens on Thursday, May 26 and is rated PG

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Nancy Stowell said...

I thoroughly agree with your thinking. Jackie Chan would be good, as Master Shifu. Also I must admit that I have been stunned at the Anti-Asian sentiments being voiced after the tragedy in Japan.

Myself, being part Native American, I am happy that at least nowdays NA's aren't portrayed by other people just because they have the "hooked-nose" of NA's, as in the past when it was mostly Italians or anyone with a big nose!!

Frankly, Hollywood has too much influence to avoid the truth of these issues, or even worse - go out of their way to be totally wrong and enforce those sterotypes.

Thanks for your wonderful blog and have you ever thought of writing a book??? Or 3 - 5 - more??

Amy Anderson said...

This Yellow Asian American Out Of Work Actress With a Little Kid says: Ditto

I see lots of white actors playing Asian roles - both animated and live-action. But we never see the reverse. Sandra Oh will never be called on to play the voice of a white princess character. There was even a black actor in the cast of KFP2 and not one of the main characters was played by an Asian actor. James Hong did have the biggest role of all the Asian actors, playing Mr Ping (Po's adoptive father) and he is AWESOME, but of the top 14 names billed in the cast, only 4 are of Asian descent and none are in the lead roles. :(

planetnomad said...

It's just kind of mind-boggling isn't it?

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