I find it interesting that Kung Fu Panda 2 has been released the same weekend as The Hangover Part II. Between the two films, there is an incredibly different approach to creating a sequel. The Hangover Part II takes the stance of recreating what worked well in the first place, nearly note for note. Kung Fu Panda 2, on the other hand, figures out where the story would go next and gives the audience another story – one that brings what made the original so popular back by maintaining a respect for the characters and remaining faithful to their story. This approach is a much more successful one, with a sequel that builds on the strong foundation of the original and delivers an equally strong new story.
When we last left the Kung Fu Panda, Po (voiced by Jack Black), he had discovered that he was indeed the Dragon Warrior and he used that power to defend his village from the terror of Tai Lung. The sequel picks up shortly thereafter, with the Dragon Warrior and the Furious Five serving as the local defenders. Other than the Five embracing Po as a brother-at-arms, not much has changed. Po is still a bit of a dreamer, albeit one who is living the dream, and his portly build still serves to frustrate his Master, Sifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), and provide a lot of the humor surrounding the Panda.
In the film’s prologue we find out about Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman), a white peacock with ambition of ruling all of China. A wise soothsayer (voiced by Michele Yeoh) told Shen that he would be defeated by a warrior of black and white, leading to Shen obliterating the panda population of China years ago. Thinking himself safe, Shen begins his plot to return to the ancestral home he had been exiled from, leading the Dragon Warrior and the Furious Five into action. But Po finds inner conflict as memories of the past haunt him – memories that make Po question his own identity and how he wound up in his adopted father’s care.
Just about every praise I laid on the original Kung Fu Panda can be repeated here: the animation is visually stunning, bringing to life mystical China landscapes and creating these animal kung fu masters with amazing detail – detail made even more impressive here as the animals face elements like snow and water. It’s not just beauty that makes the animation impressive however. Yet again, the filmmakers have managed to create action sequences that put most contemporary live-action films to shame, particularly with the well-realized combat choreography. Seriously, if I were behind some of the other summer blockbusters of the past few years and I saw this movie’s combat, I would be embarrassed. It’s that good, just as it was the first time.
While the visual element of the film continues to be a strong element, the vocal piece is just as strong. Jack Black showed how well he could handle the material with the previous film and continues that streak here. The Furious Five get a little more play here as an ensemble, now that they are partners with Po instead of against him. As a result, Dustin Hoffman (Master Shifu) and Angelina Jolie (Tigress) gets a little less to work with, but we get more of the rest of the crew: Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross), and Monkey (Jackie Chan). Newcomer Gary Oldman replaces the villany represented in the last film by Ian McShane and is easily as strong as the primary antagonist.
What makes the Kung Fu Panda movies more than just visual smorgasbords is the depth of character each movie pursues. The first film pushed the value of the individual and the idea that our inner strength will help us persevere once we accept ourselves as we are, represented by Po’s quest to become the Dragon Warrior. Here that idea of acceptance is brought up again as Po searches for his roots and seeks inner peace. What’s great is that the message of this movie feels like the next step of Po’s evolution or training, not just a thematic rehash of the first movie. There’s also a large value put on family within this movie -whether it’s the family made up of friends (Po and the Furious Five) or the sacrifices family makes for one another. It’s the exact same depth that made the first movie so enjoyable for a wide variety of audience members the first time around: kids can enjoy the silly behavior of the obese panda while more mature viewers can appreciate the introspective lens of the themes – a lens the movie might even inspire audience members to turn on themselves.
Then there are just the subtle elements of the story: the showman ship involved in a story that has a peacock as a villain or a nod to the much-beloved Master Oogway, who the story doesn’t force back onto the screen. It’s very clear that writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger know how to mold a story with these characters. It becomes pretty evident over the course of Kung Fu Panda 2 that there is room for another story and all I can say is that, if it’s executed as well as the other chapters, it will be welcome.
With incredible animation quality, fantastic vocal performances, and a story that works on different levels for a variety of audiences, Kung Fu Panda 2 is setting itself up to be one of the better animated pictures of the year. I suspect anyone who liked the first picture will easily enjoy this one as well. This is how sequels should be done, and I anxiously await a third adventure for the Dragon Warrior and the Furious Five.