Illustration by Ben Beechener
There are certain films that I absolutely adore, and yet very rarely find myself in the mood to re-watch. Take, for example, Logan (2017) – a gritty send-off to the X-Men franchise and the character Wolverine. By all accounts, this is one of my favourite films of all time. The writing, cinematography, pacing and acting are all superb and I would recommend Logan to everyone, X-Men fan or not. But for all its merits, Logan isn’t a fun film. Set in a ruined and destitute world, it’s relentlessly bleak, and I can think of one (literally just one) scene that isn’t depressing, and that only exists to make the rest of the film even sadder. I love Logan, artistically, but watching it is exhausting. I watch it when I want to have my emotions challenged, when I want to be shaken, and that isn’t all that often. Funny that. On the other hand, there are films that I adore, and am almost never in the mood not to watch. The comfort films. The cinematic equivalents of a warm fire on a cold day, or a cold beer on a hot one. Films I will watch when I’m bored, when I’m in a good mood, when I’m in a bad mood, whenever. There is one example that springs to mind above all others, and it just so happens to be about a cartoon panda that does kung fu. No, it isn’t Kung Fu Panda.
When I tell people that Kung Fu Panda 2 is genuinely a work of art that easily cracks my top 5 films ever, they usually laugh. For the life of me, I don’t know why. Gary Oldman is in it, and he plays an evil peacock. I could end the discussion there, nothing more need be said, 10/10. But, for the sake of producing an article longer than a paragraph-and-a-bit, I’ll go on. At a surface level, this film is just incredibly well-made, and incredibly fun. As with the first film, the animation is beautiful and holds up flawlessly to this day. The soundtrack, meticulously crafted by Hans Zimmer and James Powell, is honestly spectacular (the piece “Po Finds The Truth” is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard, perfectly balancing intensity and melancholy). The action is fluid, fast-paced and engaging, although not as brilliantly choreographed as the first film.
The sequel more than makes up for this, however, with super inventive and entertaining set pieces; the heroes escaping enemy fire by running up the side of a collapsing building is a personal favourite. I also think the humour works very well, in no small part due to Jack Black’s pitch-perfect performance as the lead character Po and his natural comedic ability. I get that not everyone will find it stomach-bustlingly hilarious, but I’m sure everyone will find it at least amusing. And of course, the voice acting is good as you can hope, especially in Gary Oldman’s villain Lord Shen, as you can hear the pain and hatred the character embodies practically dripping from the performance. On every technical and practical level, Kung Fu Panda 2 more than hits the mark. All-in-all, this makes for a thoroughly enjoyable action comedy that looks beautiful and sounds just as good. Sorry Logan, but THAT is what makes me want to re-watch something, not constant emotional torture.
Then again, a film that is put together skilfully and is entreating, won’t necessarily be seen as a comfort. The newest Mission Impossible film, Fallout, is also well-made in every technical aspect, is wildly exciting and made me really want to see more of a franchise that I previously didn’t care about all that much. But it isn’t comforting in any way. What is it that Kung Fu Panda 2 has that Fallout doesn’t? What is it exactly that makes a comfort film a comfort film? For me, I think it’s one of two things, the first of which is personal attachment. Comfort is obviously incredibly subjective, and we have all grown up watching and enjoying different things. I grew up watching the Star Wars films, and so those films always hit me with a massive burst of lovely comforting nostalgia (although even that can’t save Attack of the Clones). Surprise surprise, I loved the original Kung Fu Panda as a child, and so when ten-year-old me went to see the sequel and it passed expectations rather than met them, well, that excitement and that joy built a strong attachment.
Then again, there are lots of films I consider comforts because I loved them as a kid, but there is something that sets Kung Fu Panda 2 apart – a reason I consider it the ultimate comfort film. This film is, thematically, incredibly mature and positively dripping with emotion. A through line in the story is Po’s struggle with his identity and, consequently, his relationship with his adopted father, Mr Ping. This leads to a scene where Po, with the help of a particularly philosophical goat, learns the tragedy of his past and the sacrifice his biological parents made to keep him safe. I lack the words to do this scene justice, but the goosebumps it gives me don’t lie. It is heart-breaking, uplifting and inspirational all at once.
Then, at the conclusion of this storyline, we are treated to one of the most heart-warming endings to a film I’ve seen in a very long time where Po reconciles with Mr Ping, and once again accepts him as his father. A comfort film, I think, should leave you feeling something positive, and Kung Fu Panda 2 never fails to put me in an incredible mood. It’s a warmness I don’t get from many other films, and a large part of why I hold this film in such high regard. There’s so much more I wish I could say but lack the word count to do it – I wish I could go into the exploration of destiny, and how utterly perfectly this film follows on from the first, or the tragedy of the villainous Lord Shen, but oh well. If you haven’t done so recently, or at all, please just go watch Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2. They speak better about themselves than I ever could.
The brief for this article included this prompt: “Are the best comfort films profound and meaningful or trivial and uplifting?”. Great question. But when I read that, my mind went immediately to a 2011 animated comedy where Jack-Black-panda fights evil Gary-Oldman-peacock and comes to terms with the concept of identity, and I thought to myself, can’t a comfort film be both? Kung Fu Panda 2 is not the best film ever made. There are several films I considered talking about that I think are objectively better movies: Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, Moana, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. All of them are masterpieces in my eyes and are always an absolute joy to re-watch. But when I want to give my brain an hour-and-a-half off and enjoy some fun animated action, Kung Fu Panda 2 is there. And when I’m in the mood for something heart-warming and emotionally hard-hitting, guess what, it’s there as well. Excelling at both aspects is no mean feat, but Po and co. absolutely nail it.
That is something truly special, and something truly comforting.