(This will start with a spoiler-free zone for a bit. I will make it clear where the spoilers start.)
Kung Fu Panda 2 opened over the weekend. GO SEE THIS MOVIE!
We had really enjoyed the first movie, in spite of one unfortunate line when Po, the panda in question, gets hit in the crotch during training (which, of course, is one of the lines they picked for the new plush toy to say). The rest of the movie was much better than I had expected (we suspected it was going to be merely silly, full of only shallow references to Chinese culture, and, well, Jack Black isn’t always G-rated; we only saw KFP1 after reading a really glowing review on a chat site for families who’ve adopted from China). There’s some stylistically over-the-top kung fu scenes, but KFP1 is not really all that intense except for a few moments in the closing battle. The filmmakers really understood that their audience is young children; emotionally intense scenes are frequently interrupted by humor. Furthermore, the landscapes and backgrouds are really well done, the food will make your mouth water, and even the music is good. (The pipa-playing rabbit during the opening fight in KFP2 is great, and, apparently, an homage to kung fu movies.)
The one hanging question (especially from the adoption angle) was, “It’s really well done, but does Po know he’s adopted?”
In the first movie, there’s an important scene where Po complains to his dad (Mr. Ping, a goose) that he doesn’t exactly fit in as his son. Mr. Ping looks uncomfortable for a moment, then says, “There’s something I should have told you a long time ago…” He doesn’t discuss adoption, but the secret ingredient to his famous soup (Mr. Ping owns a popular noodle shop). Po looks like maybe he was expecting a different revelation, although what he gets from his dad unlocks a riddle that allows Po to defeat the enemy coming to destroy his home town.
I have read reviews of KFP2 that condemned the Taoist elements, but, really, I don’t think the movie is trying to spread Taoism. Yes, the kung fu masters do impossible feats of balancing, jumping, redirecting incoming weapons with their bare hands, etc. Finding “inner peace” is a recurring theme, but it is unspecific enough that it could certainly be understood in a Christian light (it’s more of a sense of dealing properly with things in your past, accepting responsibility, and understanding what you can and can’t change). There is a sheep soothsayer in the second movie who fortells the bad guy’s future, but, like Rafiki in Lion King, her job is more of that of guidance to other characters than divination (and occasional humor; she’s continually trying to eat the evil peacock’s robes, just when you may be tempted to take her fortune telling too seriously).
On the other hand, there are strongly redemptive elements in both movies. In both storylines, there are strong themes of mistakes or evil in the past that has to be corrected or dealt with. Victory comes only after characters learn to deal with what they have been avoiding in their past. Both finales include opportunities for the villain to repent (in the second movie, the villain’s insistence on fighting after being defeated leads directly to his death). Characters show compassion and respect for those weaker than them.
KFP2 is a bit more intense, however, than KFP1. I think part of it is that the villain is much nastier. We find out in the opening sequence (a beautifully done piece imitating traditional Chinese shadow puppets) that Lord Shen, a white peacock, rebelled from his family, killed all the pandas he could find, and was banished by his parents. Furthermore, he has an army of wolves at his disposal and an array of cannons that make for some very intense fight scenes.
And then there’s the whole adoption angle. I was worried about this one, since the previews indicated that Po was going to go looking for his birth family to “find out who I am”. Uh oh.
Adoption keeps coming up. In the first movie, the villain was found as a cub at the door to the kung fu monastery and raised by one of the masters; the villian succumbs to pride in his ability and becomes evil. In one of the TV specials (there was a holiday special recently and a backstory special that aired with KFP1’s network premier), we find out that Tigress, one of the Furious Five, was an orphan who had had a particularly hard time getting adopted. And, of course, you have Po, a panda, and his dad, Mr. Ping, a goose. Adoption is frequently a side detail, but in KFP2, it was going to be a major part of the storyline, apparently. I was a bit worried about how it would be handled.
The short answer? These people get it. Adoption wasn’t neatened up, laughed off, or villified; they walked a near-perfect line that I really didn’t think they were going to manage. Several of the dialogs were believably uncomfortable for the characters involved. The resolution is both happy and believable because it wasn’t easy to get there.
I don’t think Empress, at four years old, got that the adoption storyline mirrored hers, but she generally liked the movie. Although she did protest that, “I don’t like that peacock!” He’s the villain, honey, you’re not supposed to like him.
(minor spoilers start here)
You’ve probably figured out by now that Lord Shen’s massacre of the pandas had something to do with how Po ended up as the only panda in his town, adopted by a goose.
There are a couple of great scenes where Po and his dad finally talk about adoption (and you get the impression someone was writing from life, because it was really well handled). Mr. Ping starts out as before: “Po, there’s something I should’ve told you a long time ago…” and he hesitates, stammering out the last word, “You were…. adopted.” Mr. Ping tells Po everything he knows about his beginnings, which isn’t much, although Mr. Ping has carefully saved the radish crate that Po showed up in. (Watch the credits all the way through for full illustration of a number of briefly mentioned humorous episodes in Po’s childhood!) Po is flustered, but gets called away (he is an integral part of the bad-guy-fighting kung fu team, and there are bad guys to fight), so the conversation is left hanging a bit, with neither Po nor Mr. Ping quite happy with the ending and both unsure of where this relationship stands now.
Dealing with bandits, Po has a flashback of being a cub and seeing his mother. This will be a recurring image throughout the movie, and it distracts him badly each time, although he tries to avoid and deny it. He has a nightmare that his parents have replaced him with a radish that is smarter and better at kung fu than he is (the old, “your parents put you up for adoption because you weren’t good enough” lie). Later, Po remembers enough of the flashback to remember that Lord Shen was there around the time Po last saw his mother; wanting answers, he corners the peacock, who vindictively lies and says Po’s parents abandoned him because they didn’t love him (another typical adoption myth). Only when Po finally faces his memories and lets them all out does he realize exactly what happened and make peace with it.
Mr. Ping pulling out the radish crate and telling how he found Po mysteriously dropped in his vegetable delivery was tear-jerking enough. There’s a couple of really touching scenes between Tigress (one of the other kung fu masters, who, in the backstory TV special, we find was an orphan herself) and Po, as he doesn’t really want to talk about what’s upsetting him, but his friends want to help. And Tigress gets the line we’re all thinking: in response to Po’s upset revelation that his dad just told him he’s not exactly his dad, that Po was adopted, she replies, totally deadpan, “Your father… the goose. And this shocked you?” (Tigress is voiced by Angelina Jolie, who has adopted kids herself.)
(MAJOR spoilers from here on out)
Po, with some prodding from the soothsayer, finally remembers the entire scene of his village being burned and his mother running through the woods until she knows she can’t outrun the wolves and hiding her baby in a radish crate, trying to look unconcerned and shush baby Po so he won’t be found when she runs back to the forest to lead the wolves away from the hidden baby (and likely gets killed, although that doesn’t happen on screen)… if you’re the mom of a Chinese adoptee, you will want to seriously consider bringing tissues. That part was really just a little too close to reality, and may be scary for small children.
In the final scene, Po returns home to tell Mr. Ping that he finally knows who he is: “I’m Po. I’m your son.”
And I just about lost it, rescued only by the fact that a really tender, moving moment quickly shifts to Po and his dad arguing happily over who is going to get to cook lunch for who.
There’s a pretty obvious hint at the very end that they’re planning on a #3 for this series, but, by this point, I think I’m going to relax a bit more through the first viewing of #3, because I’m pretty convinced that whoever’s writing and advising on this series understands adoption. I think it’s going to be better than ok, it’s going to be good. I’m looking forward to it.
And, in the meantime, go see Kung Fu Panda 2.