by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Firstly, sorry for the sudden two week break. I had a mountain of university essay work to do and, like a pillock, I don’t pre-write these. So, anyway…
Last year, DreamWorks Animation celebrated its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch has been going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Budget: $150 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%
Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director.
If I have one major regret about my work throughout this series so far, it’s that I haven’t talked anywhere near enough about direction. Part of that is due to my own personal biases with regards to DreamWorks Animation before embarking on this project, with myself having spent much of my life subscribing to the belief that DreamWorks, way more so than Disney or what have you, was a factory that pumped out films collectively rather than individually. Jeffrey Katzenberg seemingly having his fingers in damn near everything we’ve talked about so far didn’t really help in my attempt to dissuade myself from that notion as we’ve journeyed forth.
The rest is because I am very much learning as I go. Yeah, to tear down that Wizard Of Oz curtain here, I am not an expert on animation. In fact, quite frankly, I know very little about the medium, the process, and the history of it all. If I were to show my work to somebody who has dedicated their life to studying animation, like, say, one of my university lecturers, she would probably make it to about paragraph 4 of the first entry before attempting to gut me like a pig, such is the butchery I have likely committed with regards to talking about animation.
But all of that is OK because a) I have never attempted to claim that I am a super-expert on animation (except when I was a bit younger and much more stupid) and b) I am actively trying to learn and better myself. For example, I spent a lot of last year referring to different layers of animation, specifically where characters would be animated obviously separately to the background, as “Chroma-Keying” which, as it turns out, is incorrect. The process, as detailed to me by the Hullaballoo production blog, is actually known as “Compositing”. See, I’ve learned something – and now so have you, more than likely, yay! – so I don’t feel bad about having gotten it badly wrong beforehand.
Hence why I haven’t referred to directing too much during this series. Animation is an extremely collaborative medium, where tens to hundreds of people all work on the same project and any of them can make decisions that can alter how something ends up in the finished product. I was reticent, therefore, to praise specific directors for parts of these films that I liked. After all, how could I be sure that it was their choices and their quirks and not Visual Effects Artist #5? But somewhat recently I got to thinking: isn’t that the same thing with live-action films? And why do I subscribe to this thinking with regards to DreamWorks, yet I will get giddy at the prospect of a Lauren Faust animated film?
Besides, although auteur theory is very much passé and disproven in film and television nowadays, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. To shift from DreamWorks for a minute, I have recently been making full-on observations as to how I can tell that some of my favourite animated shows are made with certain people at the helm. In that, yeah, it’s a team effort, but theirs is the creative voice that stands out the most. For example, Genndy Tartakovsky – who incidentally just turned 45! Happy Birthday! – is the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, and both shows carry the same deliberate pacing that works long beats, pauses, and repetitions into their DNA for both dramatic and humorous effect. It also shows up in The Powerpuff Girls, even though that’s a show by Craig McCracken, because the two were friends and Genndy had a significant hand in shaping that show. Future shows have shown McCracken to have a faster and slightly tighter voice than Tartakovsky – Wander Over Yonder, for example, wastes not one moment of any of its episodes.
In the end, it was a combination of those and Oliver Sawa’s excellent reviews of The Legend Of Korra over at The AV Club that managed to make me realise that I really should have referred to direction more in this series. So, with that in mind, we circle back around to our opening statement.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director.
If you’ve been following along with this series, the name “Jennifer Yuh Nelson” should be relatively familiar to you. Yuh has been with DreamWorks Animation since 1998, starting as a story artist on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and the first Madagascar before progressing to Head of Story on Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. Her true breakthrough came when, as a fan of martial arts movies growing up, she asked to work on the first Kung Fu Panda and was subsequently made Head of Story there, as well as getting to direct the opening hand-drawn dream sequence. She won an Annie Award for her work on it – which, as we saw back when we talked about it, was more than deserved – and Katzenberg personally approached her to direct Kung Fu Panda 2 as a result of her work.
Hence why Kung Fu Panda 2 looks so damn incredible. Yuh’s love for martial arts films is on full prominent display, both in terms of individual shots and scene construction – which is what most of this week’s article is going to be, just a heads up on that department – and overall pacing and tone. Now, I must admit that I am not too familiar with Wuxia and other sorts of Martial Arts films, but I do have enough of a grasp on the style and tones of them to realise that Kung Fu Panda 2 bleeds martial arts films. It’s one of those (worryingly rare) action animation films that has each frequent action scene actually mean something instead of just marking time. It’s a film that deals with its character work through equal parts dialogue and action, with both working equally well.
As an example, look at the fight sequence between Po and Master Croc & Master Ox. No, seriously, look at this thing, I’ll wait.
It’s not just a fight scene for the sake of a fight scene. It’s a fun way of livening up what would otherwise be rather dry and boring sequence of Po pleading for help. The dialogue is written in a way that perfectly complements the action, the music takes on this 70s funk tinge to counterbalance the cheese with some coolness, and the choreography pitches itself as this purposefully silly and slightly cheesy releasing of each character’s various emotions in order to make that sad, defeatist walk into the cell next door an act that has a genuine sadness attached to it rather than just being understatedly humorous. It’s its own thing whilst still clearly indebted to the classic Hong Kong martial arts films Yuh loves so dearly.
Which, in fact, is very much a running theme throughout the film. Kung Fu Panda 2 is one of those heavily-indebted animated films that actually takes full advantage of the fact that animation increases the visual and storytelling capabilities to stage things that couldn’t be done (or done this smoothly and naturally) in live-action beyond the whole “talking animals” thing. For example, look at the rickshaw chase scene that comes immediately after the prison cell fight. No, seriously, look at it right now. Do it.
There’s a certain wilful excessive escalation going on in this scene – I’m specifically thinking of everything to do with the basket of baby bunnies – that I could see also occurring in Kung Fu Panda 2’s live-action equivalent, but not with the same sense of flow and believable madcap energy that animation can achieve. For example, the moment where Po’s rickshaw flies off into the air and he has to spin it around in order to catch the flying children could be pulled off in live-action, but would require multiple frenetic cuts (compared to the controlled, calculated, and varied three shots that it takes up here) and likely a whole lot of distracting green screen work to pull off. Again: indebted yet its own thing.
Or how about the dragon costume disguise? Once again, something that wouldn’t feel out-of-place in live-action yet takes full advantage of the medium by utilising the smoother flow and faster possible speed of animation to turn it into an excellent gag. Not to mention the way in which the film finds every possible spin on the gag that it can and blazes through them in quick succession. The first time utilising the squash-and-stretch capabilities of animation to create a genuinely inspired piece of toilet humour, the second time playing the image against the kid’s confused horror, the third time using the launched goons for projectiles, and the fourth and final time using clever boarding to create an image reminiscent of top-down arcade maze games, with Pac-Man being the intended but not sole reference.
But, I have wasted too much time on the direction of the comedy. Instead, the sequences that really impressed me, as in they got me to genuinely say the opening sentence to this entry out loud as the film was still ongoing multiple times, were the more dramatic character revelations and breakthrough sequences – the dramatic stuff, in other words. For example, much of the dramatic thrust of the film revolves around Po discovering that he is adopted, a revelation played for laughs and legitimate drama without either undercutting the other, and his desire to learn what happened to him. His slightly overbearing father, Ping, and Po’s eating habits have mostly been a source of comic relief up to this point, but then one exceptional sequence is able to recontextualize the pair of them into genuinely emotional character traits, again without losing the comedy.
Yes, you know what to do now.
It’s the subtle direction choices that make this scene. How every shot is saturated in this bright, warm golden glow to signify nostalgia which firmly sets us in Ping’s mind without overdoing it to send the technique into parody, the frequent usage of slow dollies into the faces of Po and Ping to connect them both so totally even within a few moments of their first meeting, James Hong’s soft-spoken and deliberately underplayed delivery in sharp contrast to his usual ham-and-cheese, Jack Black’s similarly underplayed reaction to Po’s disappointment at having no concrete answers, the music melting into the very background to let the words and pictures tell the story.
It’s a scene of enormous confidence. Most animated films are very much content to overcook everything, or just have the characters loudly state the themes or what have you without it fitting their characters, but this scene ends up being typical of Kung Fu Panda 2. It has the nerve and the confidence to realise that not every joke needs to be a giant laugh-out-loud gutbuster, that a score doesn’t have to force its way to the forefront of the mix to render emotion, and that the viewing audience will get exactly how sad or upset a character feels without having to force their voice actor to strain for emotion or to have the animation flail around wildly.
The best example of this confidence in the viewership, undoubtedly, comes from when Po, under the guide and care of The Soothsayer, finally confronts and accepts his traumatic past. I mean, just…
First of all, and because you just knew I was going to go straight for this, just look at the transitions between the CG world and the cel-animated memories. Like, look at them! The vivid exaggerations of the cel animation, coupled with their bright primary colours that give way to progressively darker shading as we get further and further in, brilliantly convey the dream-like lost childhood memory nature of the revelation that Po initially saw it as. Note how the wolves themselves seem more demonic, rabid, and dangerous than the snivelling, mangy versions that we’ve been used to seeing in the movie up until that point. And then how we switch from cel animation for the flashbacks to CG once Po has fully accepted what happened; that these are no longer horrible nightmares, but genuine fragments of his past. How he has grown to accept the reality of the situation and how they are a part of him.
The score ends up being the most powerful piece of the entire film, striking exactly the right balance between nakedly emotional and spiritually uplifting, the dialogue cuts out literally any line that is not 100% necessary to proceedings because too many words would simply undercut the drama, and the mood remains serious the entire time as Yuh and her team trust the audience won’t grow restless as we deal with this major character breakthrough. Then there are the actual transitions, the way that the match cuts and smooth pans and camera moves between animation mediums never jar because they utilise more subtle gestures – like the rain drop in CG that substitutes into the hair bun of Po’s mother in cel. And finally there’s the mini-clip-show which is lingered on precisely long enough to achieve maximum impact without once invoking wonders of unnecessary repetition.
Seriously, Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s direction of this whole film is exceptional, but that sequence is frickin’ virtuoso. It’s a sequence that heavily reminds me of Avatar: The Last Airbender – in fact, the whole film reminds me a tonne of that and The Legend Of Korra, especially with how Lord Shen is portrayed as a dark mirror version of Po who turned to rage and violence when confronted with parental abandonment – yet feels of its own, its own uniqueness, its own style. It’s powerful, it’s inspirational, and it couldn’t have been handled better. Undoubtedly a team effort, but clearly guided and controlled with such skill and passion by one woman.
I could sit here for the next 10 or so A4 pages gushing over Kung Fu Panda 2 and its every last facet – I am pretty much adamant in my belief, by this point, that this is DreamWorks Animation’s masterpiece – but my deadline and word count limit aren’t too far away, so I’m going to wrap up by talking about, what else, the female lead of a DreamWorks Animation film. Now, in the first Kung Fu Panda, The Furious Five are very much minor characters who exist in service of Po’s story and little more. We get a tiny insight into their various personalities but not much more than that. The same is mostly true of the sequel, just with the switching of Go-To Comic Relief from David Cross’ Crane to Seth Rogen’s Mantis, barring one crucial difference.
Tigress is now co-lead.
Now, one could be cynical and claim that this is only due to somebody at DreamWorks remembering that they got Angelina Jolie to voice one of their characters, and that if you’ve gone to that much trouble, you should probably make actual usage of her. However, I feel that that is severely underselling the character of Tigress in Kung Fu Panda 2. One of the frequently recurring themes we’ve seen throughout this series – of articles, not the Kung Fu Panda films specifically – has been DreamWorks’ constant voluntary torching and diminishing of any female co-lead they come up with. Fiona in Shrek, Gloria in Madagascar (although that one hasn’t bothered me so much yet), Marina in Sinbad, and of course Astrid in How To Train Your Dragon; these are (bar Gloria) all females who have their own agency and character and plot arcs, only to have said agency and arcs ripped from them as they suddenly fall for the gravitational pull of the lead male’s genitalia (METAPHORICALLY) and need saving from there on out.
Tigress is a step-up from those, a vast step-up, if not a clean break. She gets her own plot line and arc, as she learns to slowly defrost that icy demeanour and let people into her life, although it does relate around Po and her relationship to him. Crucially, however, “relationship” in this case very much points towards “platonic” rather than “romantic.” It would have been very easy to twist her and Po’s various interactions with one another into romance in order to close out the film with yet another Marina-type scenario, but it instead resists. Po is an affectionate guy, constantly hugging and professing his love for his friends, and Tigress’ slow releasing of emotion ends up coming as a result of his influence: hence the hug. It’s not romantic, it’s platonic, a sign that she cares as a friend, further enhanced by her hysterical statue-reaction to being on the receiving end of a proper Po hug at the end, the unfamiliarity for her of that hug robbing the sequence of almost all intended romantic subtext.
Yes, she also gets captured, but only because she thought her one true friend had been killed and she had lost the will to fight, just like the rest of The Furious Five. Yes, her plot and arc are tied to Po, but she still has her own agency and nobody questions her or her abilities. Yes, she’s a terse emotionless, mostly humourless girl, but that part of her arc was dealt with in the first film and this one expands her character, softens her edges so that her arc feels more gradual instead of monumental. There are even times where she gets to display genuine agency, like during the final battle where she takes Lord Shen’s shot meant for Po with no guarantee that she would get out alive. I’m reminded a lot of Mako Mori from Pacific Rim in terms of how her character is handled, albeit not that revelatory. It’s not perfect, but it is a major step-up for a company that, as we have touched on multiple times this series, has had a recurring problem with the female gender.
Two months ago, I covered the first Kung Fu Panda and noted how I would never truly be able to love it, despite recognising that it’s a great film and desperately wanting to love it, because I had too much prior life baggage attached to it, although I noted my high hopes for Kung Fu Panda 2. As you may have gathered, those hopes ended up being more than fulfilled. I actually finished the film mildly angry, because it turned out that I had spent nearly 4 years voluntarily depriving myself of a modern masterpiece. Kung Fu Panda 2 is insanely good, the kind of sequel that recognises and improves upon what worked in the first film and jettisons what didn’t, that gets more ambitious, more confident in being able to go darker and have the audience follow along no matter what, and the kind of film where a strong directorial voice is able to elevate an already great film into something even more through their vision and drive.
So I’ll say it again, loud and clear, Jennifer Yuh Nelson is one hell of a director! Thank the Maker she’s coming back for Kung Fu Panda 3!
A hit with the critics and a runaway smash overseas, albeit a major underperformer at home – a fact that we will touch on again in a few weeks – Kung Fu Panda 2 solidified DreamWorks’ third potential franchise as one that would stick around for the long haul. Their other film for 2011 would attempt to re-invigorate the Shrek brand by spinning-off the series’ non-Donkey breakout character into his own franchise. Surprisingly, the move worked with critics and even did decent business at the box office. But was this all justified? Next week, we pay one last visit to the Shrek universe and look at Puss In Boots.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!
Callum Petch is doing all that he can to be a warm-hearted man. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!