Review: Kung Fu Panda 2 (PG) / Directed by: Jennifer Yu / Written by: Jonathan Aiben, Glenn Berger / Starring: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, / Release Date: Out Now
When film historians look back in years to come, it’s likely that the first Kung Fu Panda film will be seen as the turning point for DreamWorks animation. It was the first film that took itself just about seriously enough and wasn’t weighted down by the endless pop culture references that have plagued the Shrek and Madagascar films. Kung Fu Panda was surprisingly serious for a film about an overweight panda becoming a kung fu master. It took its fight scenes just as seriously as its slapstick comedy and actually had a good story too with a central message about believing in yourself. DreamWorks then followed up with How To Train Your Dragon which was even more impressive. Due to the success of the first film it was inevitable that we would get a sequel featuring Po and his gang of animal martial arts masters. Whilst it won’t re-define animation, Kung Fu Panda 2 expands the story just enough to keep kids and adults entertained.
Our story picks up a short while after the first film with Po (Jack Black) and his fellow martial arts masters (Tigress, Monkey, Crane, Snake and Mantis) keeping the valley crime free and defending it from marauding wolves who have been sent in to steal metal for the evil peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). With the help of his master, Po is attempting to find inner peace which is complicated when he learns the truth about his parentage and the fact that Lord Shen is building weapons that threaten to end their way of life.
Kung Fu Panda 2 deftly balances the comedy and the action elements with aplomb. The fact that Po is now the Dragon Warrior as foretold in the first movie means that we don’t have to put up with an origin story and can leap directly into the action. If the first movie was about realising your full potential then the second is about accepting who you are. The story wastes no time in setting the tone with some impressively animated fight sequences and some new characters with sometimes surprisingly brutal results. Po and his team of animal kung fu experts launch into fight scenes taking advantage of each others physicality and working as a team to impressively and hilariously despatch the bad guys.
As mentioned there are also some new characters added to the mix, like the imprisoned martial arts masters in the shape of a crocodile and a bull who each have their own little character moments which juxtapose nicely with Po’s naïve optimism. Most impressive though is Lord Shen as voiced by Gary Oldman. The character design is wonderful with the animators using the peacock’s natural instinct to show off in order to make the fight scenes that much more visually appealing. The characters face is also animated perfectly in sync with the voice acting in order to make him despicable but also kind of sad. Speaking of sad, the makers decided here to tell a flashback story about Po’s parents and they choose traditional 2D animation to show this. These sequences are very effective and feel like the animation equivalent of an old black and white film presented as a memory that would pop up in a live action film. These sequences do not stick out like sore thumbs the way you would think and are as beautiful and concise as the main feature and very reminiscent of the work of Genndy Tarkovsky. The rest of the voice cast reprise their roles from the first so you get Seth Rogen, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, David Cross and Dustin Hoffman doing good work along with new additions like Michelle Yeoh and Jean Claude Van Damme.
The story has a nice subtext about the advances in technology threatening a more peaceful and serene way of life which culminates in some impressively staged battle sequences towards the end. These sequences along with some truly impressive landscapes show that animation keeps moving forward no matter how advanced you may think it has gotten. This is especially demonstrated in scenes in water, where the environment blends together with the characters seamlessly to create a believable world. A world where animals talk and do kung fu yes, but you get the idea…
The only problem with Kung Fu Panda 2 is that now the central joke of an overweight panda becoming a kung fu master is out of the way, it feels a little light on laughs. There are funny moments but only one or two that are genuinely chuckle inducing. The rest of the film seems content to coast by on the slapstick comedy fight scenes of which there are plenty. It feels like a script that could have done with a comedy writer coming in to do a last minute polish but this is still a minor niggle.
Kung Fu Panda 2 is not life changing but it's solid entertainment and a further step in the right direction for DreamWorks who seem to be getting it right now. If they keep this up then maybe one day we might talk about them with the same reverence with which we talk about the output of Pixar.
Extras: Filmmakers Commentary, 'Kickin' it with the Cast' featurette, Deleted Scenes, Trailers.