"Panda" VS. "Popper's" VS. "Pixar"
This is the ultimate showdown of the three big family films in theaters this summer: Dreamworks' "Kung Fu Panda 2", 20th Century Fox's "Mr. Popper's Penguins", and Disney/Pixar's "Cars 2". Does the sequel to one of Dreamworks Animation's most praised efforts stand out the most this summer? Or is it the always-reliable offering from Pixar? Could the silly Jim Carrey comedy really be worth your money? Keep reading (don't just skip to the end) and I'll give you the fairest breakdown I possibly can by creating ten different categories. The film with the most categorical wins is the certified pick for you to head out and see by summer's end. Let's begin:
STORYLINE: Cars 2 follows Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) as he's dragged into the world of spies and espionage all around the world. Meanwhile, his best friend, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), revs his engine in the World Grand Prix. Mr. Popper's Penguins stars Jim Carrey as the title character, a recently-separated husband with two kids. After his late father sends him a crate with six penguins, his life is turned upside-down as he must prioritize his family and his career. Kung Fu Panda 2 joins Po (Jack Black) on his search for answers about his past. With the help of the Furious Five, he also fights back against the villainous Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) and his revolutionary firepower.
Mr. Popper's Penguins is the strangest storyline of the bunch, but the bouncy tone of the film matches the goofy plotline well enough. Cars, however, has two storylines going on that never mesh. While the subplot of Mater and McQueen's friendship is soundly reminiscent of the first, it takes a backseat to the clashing action and thrills of the spy world that seemed more suited to the world of The Incredibles. Kung Fu Panda is able to take an emotional storyline of Po and his father and weave it into the high-octane energy of the fighting, without either seeming obtrusive. The fierce "Kung Fu" moved seamlessly alongside the tender "Panda". The winner: KUNG FU PANDA 2
CASTING: Mr. Popper's Penguins did the most marvelous thing in casting wild funnyman Jim Carrey. Instead of overpowering the material, he allows the material to work around him. He uses his costars (both human and non-human) to inspire his comedy, rather than exasperating his screen presence. Meanwhile, Cars employs some of the most annoying voice casting I've ever seen. There's Michael Caine in his all-too-stereotypical role as British Intelligence; there's the geeky voice of Owen Wilson as the arrogant racer; and then there's the obnoxious, grating voice of Larry the Cable Guy now in the lead role which, sadly, gives him more lines. Kung Fu Panda features the original cast of voices, all of whom fit their roles well. Jack Black stands out in finding a way to deliver comedy without hamming it up. But even with the well-suited addition of Gary Oldman as the villain, the film's voice cast can't outdo Carrey's comic gusto. The winner: MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS
PACING: Kung Fu Panda uses its well-blended material to keep moving briskly. At a perfect 91 minutes, the movie never wears out its welcome. Cars, however, does. With an outlandish 112 minute runtime, the film has a lot of energy, but no momentum. The picture sends plotlines flying everywhere that never get the film moving anywhere. Mr. Popper's Penguins moves through its pratfalls in good speed. But the emotional moments feel detached and forced in the film. The movie never feels overlong, but it works better in sections than as a whole. The winner: KUNG FU PANDA 2
VISUAL EFFECTS: Pixar is the king of the animation industry, both for their storytelling and for their animation. Cars 2 uses bright colors and swift camera movements to make the film delightful to watch. But the cars themselves seem to look more like toys in this film than life-size vehicles. They look too smooth and their movements are too agile. There is also a wholly annoying scene where the animated cars are placed in a sweeping overhead shot of a live-action city, a trick that looks both cheap and lazy. To be fair, though, I'm being nitpicky on a team of marvelous animators, and, for the most part, Cars looks dazzling.
Kung Fu Panda 2 uses the sleek slow-motion of the original during the fight scenes as well as employing giant visual sets for the action. The characters seem to have weight and presence. In short, the film is just as visually breathtaking as the first. The penguins of Mr. Popper were actually living creatures on set. But digital enhancements give them more character and personality. The blend is seamless and the penguins are quite engaging to look at. Unfortunately, the visual effects are a bit too heavy, leading no one to believe that the penguins used were real at all. Most definitely the winner: KUNG FU PANDA 2
HUMOR: The original Kung Fu Panda is one of the funniest animated films I've seen. The sequel, however, doesn't have as many gags. While there are plenty of great deadpan moments, it takes a while for the movie to get more than just giggles. And even then, the humor is too inconsistent to have you roaring. Mr. Popper's Penguins was surprisingly hysterical! Jim Carrey's elastic face and the antics of the penguins created many roars of laughter throughout the audience. The film is so goofy that even when jokes fall flat, you're still smiling. Cars 2 substitutes action for laughs. There wasn't a single moment that had me laughing out loud. Instead, the movie resorts to one of two extremes: either the jokes are extremely corny to aim at young children, or they are just *wink wink* moments for the older crowd (i.e. the Drive-In theater sign advertising "The Incredimobiles"). The winner: MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS
APPROPRIATENESS: Mr. Popper's Penguins has some mild language, and at points, it sadly resorts to excremental humor. Cars 2 features loads of action, complete with rapid gunfire and even the "death" of some cars. With so much weaponry, explosions, and chases, it baffles me how the film didn't obtain a PG rating like "Up" and "The Incredibles". The inappropriate rating aside, the movie is definitely appropriate for families and their kids. Kung Fu Panda 2 is darker than the first. The wages are more threatening and the action is more intense. (This may be part of the reason for its disappointing box office returns). While the rating is misleading, Pixar has still crafted the most kid-friendly picture of the summer. The winner: CARS 2
SCORE: Michael Giacchino is no stranger to Pixar. His compositions have appeared in The Incredibles, Up, and Ratatouille. His music for Cars 2 really helps authenticate the spy premise. The tracks are spirited and rhythmic while still maintaining intensity. Rolfe Kent isn't known for creating big scores and loud productions. His work is often featured in quieter comedies. The bounce in his score for Mr. Popper's Penguins helps stabilize the goofiness in the material. Kung Fu Panda 2 features the combination of two of the greatest composers working today. John Powell and Hans Zimmer form one of the most stand-out scores of the year. While it still maintains an authentic ancient sound, the music is both rousing and compelling. All three films are winners for this category, but only one of them won me enough to get the soundtrack. The winner: KUNG FU PANDA 2
BONUS: All three films have a little something extra. Mr. Popper's Penguins has a short animated film in front of it, "Scrat's Continental Crack-Up". Kung Fu Panda has a 3D presentation. And Cars 2 has a 3D presentation, a sneak preview of The Lion King in 3D, and a Toy Story short film, "Hawaiian Vacation". By process of elimination, I will say that Kung Fu Panda did not need the darkened third dimension. The Scrat short film is hilarious, but it has already been seen twice before (attached to Gulliver's Travels and to Rio). Cars 2 is aided in no way by the 3D (I don't even recall noticing a third dimension at any point...). What's more disappointing is that the Toy Story short is awful! It has maybe two laughs in it total. The entire short feels crammed and rushed. I really have no winner for this category, but the sneak preview of The Lion King in 3D is eye-opening. The film looks magnificent with the new technology (albeit, noticeably dimmer). While I don't think I'll pay to watch the whole thing in 3D this September, the 4-minute preview was fascinating and wonderful to behold. Show up before the previews to catch this at a 3D screening of Cars 2. The winner (for that reason alone): CARS 2
EXPECTATIONS: Two sequels and one book adaption are what families have to choose from. Kung Fu Panda 2 is a lesser to the incredible original, though it ought to be noted how high the bar was set. Cars 2 was battling both the sky-high expectations for Pixar as a company and the lowered expectations for what was arguably already their weakest effort, the original Cars. Knowing my distaste for the original, I figured I would have a better chance of enjoying it if I only judged the film as a sequel. Well, even then I was still disappointed. With its shift in main characters and in tone, Cars looks more like an extended version of one of the many ridiculous Mater short films than a true continuation of a story. Then there is Mr. Popper's Penguins, which surpassed even my loftiest expectations (which were "not as bad as I thought it'd be"). The film will be a pleasant surprise to all viewers, even if you aren't fully won over. The winner: MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS
MORAL CONTENT: Each film has an emotional issue at its core. Cars 2 emphasizes the importance and value of friendship. Kung Fu Panda 2 focuses on forgiveness and finding out what you value. Mr. Popper's Penguins deals with the importance of family and how a man learns to be a good father. All three films feature important lessons, so I'll judge them on delivery. Cars 2 is more about popcorn entertainment and action than it is about the friendship at its core. Mr. Popper learns how to be a good father, but I found it a bit troublesome to see yet another family film where the separated mother and father just need to get together "one last time" to make everything happy again. The wishful thinking in this and many other children's films is worrisome. Kung Fu Panda really has its heart in the right place. Po's journey to find purpose and peace will bring tears to some eyes by the end. The touching winner: KUNG FU PANDA 2
WINNER: Kung Fu Panda 2 (5 points, 4.0/5 rating)
RUNNER-UP: Mr. Popper's Penguins (3 points, 3.5/5 rating)
LAST: Cars 2 (2 points, 2.0/5 rating)
In short, Mr. Popper's Penguins is the summer's funniest family film and the biggest surprise with tremendous help from Jim Carrey. Cars 2 is Pixar's weakest entry to date, but it gets points for staying appropriate for the whole family and small kudos for a neat sneak preview before the film. Kung Fu Panda is the family film of the summer (and of the year). It features a smart, well-crafted story, dazzling animation, a rousing score, swift pacing, and a heartfelt emotional core. By the end, Pixar pales, Popper's pops, but Panda "pwns".