I can safely say that I haven’t had as much fun watching a movie in a while as I did when I saw Kung Fu Panda 2. As a sequel to the much-lauded Kung Fu Panda, it succeeds on every front, and as a piece of cinema, it makes for a compelling, dramatic addition to the DreamWorks œuvre. Kung Fu Panda 2 is a rousing achievement of animation.
The first thing instantly noticeable in Kung Fu Panda 2 is the incredibly high level of 3D artistry. Surpassing the original in both beauty and intricacy, every 3D animated sequence in the movie is a wonder to behold. The style of the Kung Fu Panda universe has been even more fully realized here, with clever character designs for the animal citizens of China permeating the scenery and architecture. Perhaps more importantly, the improvements in 3D have given the animators the ability to instill more subtleties into the facial animation of their characters, allowing for wordless exchanges more akin to a live-action film that greatly increase the emotional resonance of the film.
Having mentioned the 3D visuals, I must mention the fact that 2D cartoon scenes are also here in far greater force than they were in the previous entry. They’re used primarily as a tool for flashbacks, but a part of me feels like they were inserted to help expedite production and cut down on having to do more fully-rendered 3D. However, they don’t really detract from the feel of the movie, and while I don’t think they match up to their 3D counterparts or even previous DreamWorks cel-animated films like The Prince of Egypt, they are at least stylistically distinct and consistent.
Jack Black returns as Po, the immovable, indomitable panda who has come to be known as the Dragon Warrior. Jack Black once again does his Jack Black thing in perhaps the only role where it has ever felt… right – right to the point of being genuinely endearing. In fact, I would say that one of the greatest triumphs of this movie, and of the franchise as a whole, is how infectious Po’s enthusiasm for kung fu really is. At multiple points during the film, as Po gives his exposition on other kung fu masters, his fangirling become the audience’s fangirling and we become as excited as he is to see these fictional characters jump into the fray.
What I’m trying to say is that this movie got me to empathize with a panda, and that’s not nothing.
The supporting cast is still as strong as ever, with Angelina Jolie and James Hong (Balls of Fury) as Po’s adoptive goose father getting the particularly meaty roles. Tantalizing bits of a blossoming relationship between Tigress and Po hint strongly at a climax in the next film, and I’m excited to see it come to fruition. Likewise, James Hong’s character plays a much larger role in Kung Fu Panda 2, and his dialogue with Po is witty while carrying some strong emotional subtext. Mantis, Monkey, Viper, and Shifu are all serve complimentary roles, but their limited screen time is a bit disappointing considering the talent behind the characters.
Gary Oldman is also stand-out as the wonderfully conceived peacock Shen, who is as evil as he is beautiful to look at. Shen makes a for a formidable villain, with clear, though somewhat cliché, motives, and dialogue that is both eccentric and witty. Once again, the sleek character design fantastic; Shen is in fact so aesthetically interesting that it almost distracts from the typically strong performance from the veteran actor. Almost.
Character development is the true focus of Kung Fu Panda 2. The entire film centers around Po’s development as the Dragon Warrior, but gone are the days of people not taking him seriously; with the exception of the villain, most of the supporting cast now accepts the events of the last movie and sees Po for the master he has since become. The sequel instead makes an effort to delve into Po’s past, exploring his origins and how he came to be the adopted son of a goose-come-noodle entrepreneur – and surprisingly, I was quite impressed by how invested I was getting in Po’s growth, as well as his interpersonal interactions with Tigress. I will say that some pacing issues hold back the film, namely the speed at which the plot moves forward at certain points, but it’s certainly not offensive to the point of being a deal-breaker.
And of course, Kung Fu Panda 2 is hilarious. I found myself laughing from the first scene onward, as nearly every joke hit home. The humor feels a bit different than the first film, where it revolved primarily around Po’s out-of-place personality and stature, and instead focuses on gags and clever action to bring on the smiles. I found the humor to be perfectly suited to the unique tone of the film, giving it a lighthearted air despite its somewhat dark plot.
I cannot really recommend Kung Fu Panda 2 enough, particularly to fans of the first film. The team at DreamWorks outdid themselves with this sequel, and the strong implications of a third have me quite excited – and that’s that in and of itself is a feat. While the movie is not quite on par with the behemoth that is How to Train Your Dragon, every fan of animation, children’s films, or comedies should be picking this one up regardless.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Note on Plot Origins – The plot of Kung Fu Panda 2 is very much reminiscent of the story of Moses, and I’m curious to see where they go with that thread in the next film. Once you’ve finished the movie, you’ll see what potential there is to run with that idea. I mention this because I find it amusing that the same studio that produced The Prince of Egypt, an animated telling of the story of Moses, would go back to that very story for another film 13 years later.