Kung Fu Panda 2 stands as a shining example of DreamWorks finally getting the sequel formula right. Building off of the success of the original 2008 hit, Panda 2 delivers more laughs, larger scale, finer animation, and arguably more heart. Jack Black returns as the incompetently powerful Po the panda to battle the next stage in warfare that threatens to make hand-to-hand combat extinct. Joined by the Furious Five, the group wages war amidst the beautiful landscape of China in thrilling sequences of 3D combat that highlight the evolution of the fighting in the first film. With newcomer Jennifer Yuh at the helm, backed by the returning talents of writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger along with the full voice cast, Kung Fu Panda 2 is the latest animated film to blur the lines between the admiration from adults and kids alike, and brings bang for your buck in 3D. Hit the jump for the full review.
Po (Black) is living it up as the legendary Dragon Warrior alongside the Furious Five—Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Viper (Lucy Liu). They watch over the Valley of Peace and defeat all threats. But when a new enemy rises in the form of Shen (Gary Oldman) with a deadly weapon, it threatens to irradicate the need for any form of martial arts. Po and his companions must travel into the heart of China to face off against Shen, but the secret to securing the future lies in Po’s mysterious past.
One clear sign that the DreamWorks crew were listening to the criticism and praise of the original is that the hand-drawn animation that took place in the intro of the first film is not only back, but makes a few more appearances throughout. Rendered in 3D, the opening sequences for Kung Fu Panda 2 are dripping with the fine detail that the extra dimension provides to a layered but flat scene. While this may be Yuh’s first feature film as director, she is familiar with the hand-drawn animation as she directed the sequences in the first film. Another interesting addition is how Po fights alongside the Furious Five. Instead of fighting as individuals, they work in tandem to disperse foes in interesting combinations. While they sometimes end up a blur, it never becomes frustrating. The fights are relentlessly entertaining, and the infusion of humor into the skirmishes feels fresh.
Unfortunately, not everything in this sequel is better. One of the weaker parts of Panda 2 is in the main baddie. While Tai Long was capable of single-handedly defeating the Furious Five, Shen has no such skill. Considering he is a peacock, I had my doubts about his ability to fight to begin with. Luckily, they didn’t try and sell him as an overly powerful fighter but instead a thinker. That isn’t to say that Shen can’t hold his own at times; his use of metal talons and daggers hidden within his tail help give him an edge.
However, one built-up fight feels over before it even started until he makes his escape. Considering the film is so immersed in fighting, it’s an odd quirk to have your main evil doer rely on means other than kung fu. Meanwhile, the wolf henchmen that Shen utilizes provide worthy opponents to showcase the talents of our kung fu heroes. They also provide comic relief in the sense that they are constantly beat up in humors ways. Additionally, with Danny McBride providing the vocals of the head wolf, you get verbal quarrels that leave both child and adult in laughter.
As for Po’s past, it is thoroughly explored and sets up nicely for a future film. Unluckily, having Black voice his flashback parents may be a bad trend in sequels if they go down that route. Back to Po’s past, though, his journey isn’t quite as easy to track compared to the first film. At times it feels splintered, and we are unsure why his past is so troubling. There are also revelations made that will catch many off guard and get them thinking about the various characters we have encountered along the way.
The mere fact that Panda 2 makes you want to think back and become retrospective is impressive. For a film that appears to just be a barrel of laughs on the outside, there is a surprising amount of heart built in. The other qualm with the story is the opening sequence. While it is visually stunning, I think it may have dulled my ability to pay attention to what the animation was trying to tell me. Make sure you are ready to get on board with the story when the film begins.
With my nitpicking out of the way, let’s get back to the improvements. Remember the end sequence of the first film and how many enemies the sextuplet were facing as they leap off a cliff face? Imagine adding 3D to the scene, and playing it out three or four times. With that in mind, you get a sense of scope of the action set pieces. They are massive and with the additional dimension, look stunning. Unlike so many films that seem to just play with 3D, animated films have long been the torch bearer the last year and a half because they work in the extra dimension so well. Yet, Panda 2 goes a step beyond. DreamWorks as a whole seems to have a knack for adding much-needed value for your extra dollar, and the film really pops. This is one film I would actually encourage you to see in 3D.
Another advance is the humor of the film. We are ready to believe that Po is a capable fighter, but he is still a klutz. While he is brave, he is also headstrong and often times it is to the detriment of his own body. Panda 2 never makes excuses for where most of its humor comes from—it’s slapstick wrapped in some of the prettiest packaging around. But there is an intelligent quality to the slapstick that keeps it from feeling tired. When Po notices his foe’s head bouncing on the steps as they roll down them, he places his fist right in front to dole out more punishment. Even the jokes have improved, with Black’s delivery and enthusiasm garnering most of the laughter but still leaving the other cast members room to make their mark.
Kung Fu Panda 2 could have been a quick cash-grab without any soul. The film was a follow-up to a smash success, and yet I can’t stop thinking about how much the film impressed me. Having been an outspoken fan of the original, it brings me joy to praise its sequel. With the oddity of improving in every facet except for the antagonist, Panda 2 shows that hard work can pay off and DreamWorks can be trusted to improve on a previous product. There is no denying that this film has a smooth confidence, and if this is a sign of the future of the franchise, I can’t wait to see where they go from here.