Sequels have been a fact in the movies since, well, the movies began. They are hard to pull because they have to be creative without losing the essence of the original – and usually, they fail. Happily, Kung Fu Panda 2 comes close to approximating the mix of action, humor and heart that made its predecessor such an entertaining experience.
Now that Po [voiced by Jack Black] has fulfilled his ultimate dream to become the Dragon Warrior and join the Furious Five – Tigress [Angelina Jolie], Mantis [Seth Rogen], Viper [Lucy Liu], Monkey [Jackie Chan] and Crane [David Cross] – he must face a [to him at least] unexpected challenge: his past!
When Po and the Five attempt to thwart a gang of thugs who are stealing all the town’s metal, he flashes on a symbol on one thug’s armor – and freezes. For a few seconds, he flashes back to his childhood and it’s a scary thing – one that leaves him wondering who he really is. Apparently, it had never occurred to him that Mr. Ping [James Hong] couldn’t be his actual father [that innocence is one of the things that makes Po work as a character].
The metal-stealing thugs work for Lord Shen [Gary Oldman], a white peacock who has devised a weapon that will subjugate all of China and kill kung fu. As we follow Po’s efforts to learn his past, we also see [in flashback] the origins of Lord Shen’s desire for conquest – and how a soothsayer’s [Michelle Yeoh] prophesy ties his destiny to Po’s.
While Kung Fu Panda 2 isn’t a deeply developed and involving as a Pixar film, it follows Pixar’s pattern of making a good story first and an animation extravaganza second. Where the DreamWorks animation falls short is in the supporting cast of characters. Po, Shen and Tigress are fully developed and well rounded characters with solid and believable motivations; the rest of the characters are pretty much there for jokes or specific moments of drama. If not for the fine performance by James Hong, even Mr. Ping would be much less than he is, and Dustin Hoffman does as much for Master Shifu in the brief amount of time allotted to his character.
What makes Kung Fu Panda 2 a success is the combination of those three well developed characters and a story that allows for some seriously dark and dramatic moments that might be a bit scary for younger children, but provide a balance to the funniest material.
Sure, there are bits that carry over from Kung Fu Panda [‘My old enemy… stairs!’ Po moving in slow motion when he goes into action], but they are good bits and folded seamlessly into the character and story’s progression.
The animation is, for the most part, up to near Pixar levels, though some of the best bits [Lord Shen’s story; the closing credits] are done in styles reminiscent of paper puppets. And while the 3D is excellent [after all, CG animation is modeled in 3D in the computer, anyway], the film doesn’t really have too many moments where it adds anything to the storytelling.
Overall, Kung Fu Panda 2’s mix of action, humor, drama and poignancy add up to a much better than average sequel. Full credit to Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger for a script that almost matches the first film in range and style – and to director Jennifer Yuh [the first female director to direct an animated feature film solo] for making that script sing.
Final Grade: A-
Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.