Sunday, July 10, 2011

Serial Diseases: Why Sequels Get Worse

I saw Kung Fu Panda 2 last night. It wasn’t bad, but I liked the first one better.
Jeez, how many times is that the verdict on a sequel? But no one spends much time, it seems, analyzing the forces and temptations that cause that result. Kung Fu Panda 2 is such a clear example of some of those forces at work, some of those diseases that infect the soul of a sequel, that it’s a good laboratory for examining them.

First to repeat: Kung Fu Panda 2 isn’t bad. It’s got a decent plot, it fleshes out (pun intended) the central character a little bit, and it retains many of the qualities that made its predecessor successful: appealing characters, beautiful composition (as with The Lion King, you can freeze-frame Kung Fu Panda nearly anywhere, and find a beautiful picture), and spectacular, state-of-the art CG work. It’s worth seeing. BUT.....

It’s also suffering from the first signs of several progressive diseases that have done in other successful movie franchises. They include:

Higher conceptivitus. I’ve always hated to term “higher concept,” anyway. I really think “lower concept” would be more appropriate, or “Central Joke”: the whole film reduced to a single idea that can be pitched to a producer in a single simple sentence. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito are long-lost brothers. Small-time enforcer becomes a movie producer. Sleazeball becomes a department store Santa. Pudgy panda becomes a kung fu master. Higher concept films, at their worst, are a single joke endlessly recycled. The first Kung Fu Panda overcame that problem by rising above it: it wasn’t just about the joke. As in King Lear, even the most minor characters had their own back-stories, motivations and internal conflicts. The idealized Chinese landscape was lovingly detailed and achingly beautiful. The CG wizards pushed their crafts to new heights, creating characters with both fur and clothing, and taking them through wildly complex kung fu battles. The actors threw themselves into their parts, exploring and improvising in character and, in some cases, exceeding themselves. (Free of the limitations of his beetling evil eyebrows, Jack Black actually created a lovable version of himself.) The central characters, especially Black’s panda and Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu, grew and changed. And the writers and director refused to let the special effects and the Central Joke overwhelm the plot.

That’s all true, to some extent, in the sequel. But that damned Higher Concept is becoming an impediment. Po the Panda is now the Dragon Warrior. But the Central Joke depends on him being an overweight klutz and a poseur, so to still work it, he has to have relapses that seem out of character. The higher concept is now holding him back. The writers need to abandon that old Central Joke, and embrace the new one that emerged toward the end of the first film: the ways in which he turns his roly-poly-ness into a weapon.

FXia. The Star Wars disease. In the original star wars, George Lucas used special effects to create a convincingly realistic and grungy universe in which to tell his story. But then he got so obsessed with topping his own special effects in each successive movie, so preoccupied with his toys, that they started to overwhelm his storytelling. In Episodes I and II, especially, hundreds of vehicles or warships clutter up every frame; the plot seems warped to get in this or that spectacular sequence, rather than the sequences chosen to advance the plot.

Likewise, in KFP 2, the desire to top the first movie’s considerable CG achievements sometimes seems to overwhelm the movie makers’ good sense. Lord Shen, the peacock emperor, is prima facie evidence. He’s an incredible achievement in animation: all those hundreds of individually moving feathers, and a bird beak that you can actually lip-read. But come on: a peacock? Thai Lung, the snow leopard of the first film, was a physically credible threat. But how do you take an evil peacock seriously?

Creeping Shrekism, or multiple characterosis: Aside from its strong Central Joke (Ogre as Good Guy), the original Shrek succeeded in great part because of some brilliant character acting by Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz, and some wonderful bit parts by various actors perverting various fairy tale characters. Shreks II expanded its repertoire by adding a second higher concept: Fairy Tale Land as Southern California. But it also piled on more bit parts by more fairy tale characters, while still trying to find finding something to do for all the previously introduced characters. By Shrek III, this had all gotten entirely out of hand: there were so many characters that the plot, what of it there was, was hopelessly cluttered and nobody got decently developed. And with two aging high concepts to carry on, there was no room for a third.

KFP 2 isn’t overwhelmed yet, but it’s showing some alarming symptoms. One of the problems with the first installment, already, was that the Furious five was about two too many: decent comic actors such as Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan simply couldn’t get enough lines to bring out the potential of their characters. In the sequel, they get even less, because they have to share the screen with new characters such as Master Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Master Storming Ox (Dennis Haysbert). The problem is aggravated by the fact that much of the voice acting talent is coming from the martial arts milieu, and frankly, Jean Claude Van Damme can’t act when he has his own body to work with. Fortunately, Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson went with veteran human chameleon Gary Oldman to do evil Lord Shen, and Oldman does about as a good job as anyone could to make a peacock scary. (Actually, a chameleon would make a pretty good villain for this series. Just think of the possibilities of sneaky Lord Ptui and his kung-fu tongue.)

These diseases aren’t necessarily fatal. Both Star Wars and Shrek bounced back with decent movies for their final installments. But I hope the DreamWorks people don’t allow the problems to creep so far. It’s already obvious that there’s going to be a Kung Fu Panda 3. But I hope Po’s reunion with his family isn’t going to be marred by the advent of Master Bullfrog and Master Horny Toad, voiced by Stephen Seagal and Chuck Norris.