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Wednesday, May 25,2011

The Screening Room

The season of sequels starts with a double shot

by James Sanford

Just as mosquitoes will swarm the picnic areas each summer, sequels will attack the cineplex.


Not every mosquito bites — and not every second or third
installment of a series does either. Remember "The Godfather, Part II"
and "Toy Story 2"? Sure, you may say, but what about "Transformers 2:
Revenge of the Fallen" and "Sex and the City 2"? Like the summer
weather, you never know what you’re going to get.


A perfect snapshot of how a follow-up can fly (or flop) is
provided by the Thursday debuts of "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "The Hangover,
Part II": One film actually improves on the original, while the other
is a textbook example of how not to handle a second chapter.


When DreamWorks Animation’s beguiling fable "Kung Fu
Panda" became a worldwide smash in 2008, it was almost inevitable that
Po the Dragon Warrior (with voice provided by Jack Black) would return
to fight another day.


Surprisingly, "Panda 2" is a stronger film than the
original, building on the first story instead of simply recycling it.
The rich animation, with its Chinese art flourishes, also represents a
step up from its predecessor, quite an achievement considering how
gorgeous "Panda" was. Angelina Jolie once again provides a welcome dose
of dry humor as Po’s partner, Tigress, and the voicework of Jackie Chan,
Lucy Liu, David Cross, Seth Rogen and Dustin Hoffman is consistently
rewarding. 


The plot presents Po with a double challenge: Not only
does he have a new villain to battle — a power-hungry peacock named Shen
(Gary Oldman) who plans to use super-sized cannons to conquer China —
he must also wrestle with a suppressed secret from his past that’s
undermining his self-confidence at a time when he most needs it. Yes, Po
needs to get in touch with his inner child (inner cub?) before he can
achieve the inner peace he’ll need to shut down Shen.


The idea sounds painfully early-’90s, but screenwriters
Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger make it unexpectedly touching and
suspenseful. If the original tried perhaps a little too hard to woo the
audience through its use of Carl Douglas’ cornball "Kung Fu Fighting"
and its sometimes frantic slapstick, "Panda 2" takes a more measured
approach: The comedy seems to grow out of the story instead of having
been imposed upon it. Even the 3D effects are done with exceptional
skill. The movie is thoroughly delightful on every level.


The same cannot be said for "The Hangover, Part II," which
does little more than transplant the central situation of the 2009
blockbuster — three guys wake up in the middle of a mess they can’t
remember getting into — from Las Vegas to Bangkok. Bradley Cooper, Ed
Helms and Zach Galifiankis reprise their roles as the members of the
"Wolf Pack," although none of them seems enthusiastic about the
assignment; the characters have now been boiled down to dull stereotypes
and, in the case of Galifianakis, given an unpleasant edge that’s
off-putting instead of amusing. 


Director Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the soggy screenplay,
adheres to the time-honored formula for sequel-making: Repeat
absolutely everything that worked the first time, pump up the volume,
spend more money and, if you can’t make it funnier, make it raunchier.
So, if a little full frontal male nudity worked in "The Hangover," why
not include four times as much in "Part II"? Phillips used a dog for
cutaway reaction shots in last year’s "Due Date"; here, he tries the
same trick with a chattering monkey.


Unfortunately, more, more, more does not mean extra-funny.
The original was a terrific comedy of errors that kept slamming the
audiences with surprises. "Part II" is like a second trip on the same
roller coaster: Since you know all the twists and dips already, the
thrill is mostly gone. 


The movie has all the zip and effervescence of a cheap
beer that’s been left sitting in the sun all afternoon. Perhaps before
this woebegone Wolf Pack re-groups for another perversion excursion, the
guys should check themselves into rehab and rediscover their comic
roots.   

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