Kung Fu Panda 2 is a deeply involving 3D animated film, although (and this should come as no surprise to you) it has little to do with the 3D, a consistently disappointing process if ever there was one. Firstly, like its 2008 predecessor, it’s simply a lot of fun. There’s sheer exuberance to the characters, the vocal performances, and the animation – the latter especially, since there are plenty of gravity-defying martial arts sequences. I have admittedly been either indifferent or dismissive towards live-action martial arts films, in large part because they seem to be about nothing other than what they so prominently display; for me, a cartoon is the ideal medium for a martial arts movie, for it adds that extra dimension of fantasy. Both Kung Fu Panda movies have been successful in that regard.
Secondly, it achieves what so few sequels have been able to achieve: It outdoes the first film. The story is deeper. The characters are more introspective. There’s a greater sense of development all around. My God – it’s as if the filmmakers actually understood that the purpose of a sequel is to expand on setting, character, and tone, not to keep them stagnant. We’re reunited with Po the panda (voiced by Jack Black), who, in spite of his healthy appetite and rotund build, is living his kung fu dream as the fabled Dragon Warrior. He protects the Valley of Peace along with his friends, collectively known as the Fearsome Five. They are: Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu), Mantis (voiced by Seth Rogen), Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan), and Crane (voiced by David Cross). They remain under the tutelage of Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), a small but mighty red panda.
The Valley of Peace is under attack by the evil Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman), an albino peacock whose greed and participation in the genocide of pandas got him banished. Now, he has a serious axe to grind. He does not heed the words of his family’s soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh), an elderly goat who years ago prophesized that a warrior of black and white would destroy him. He believes he’s protected by a weapon of his own design: A canon, which came to be as the result of experiments with gunpowder. This directly affects Po, who finally realizes what most audiences already knew, even during the first movie: The goose that raise him, noodle chef and restaurant owner Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong), is not his real father. Who were his parents? Where did he come from? How did Mr. Ping come to raise him as his own son?
In order to defeat Shen and save kung fu, Po must work towards inner peace, which is never easy when you don’t even know your own past. Isn’t it interesting how Shen is equally not at peace, and yet he knows his past all too well? The two do not balance themselves out – they’re enemies through and through – although that would have made for a nice symbolic counterpoint, like the yin and yang symbol. As it stands, it only applies to Po, simply because some of his fur is black while the rest of it is white.
We’re treated to some incredible action sequences. My personal favorite is of Po and the Furious Five having to escape Shen’s palace as it collapses. Because the front door is blocked by debris, they’re forced to actually go back up, and we watch in amazement as they summersault along the sides of the building. There’s also a fun moment in which Po chases after one of Shen’s wolf guards while riding a wagon. But he doesn’t merely ride it; he flies over rooftops, soars through the air, zooms around clumps of pedestrian traffic, and glides under a series of signs, all of which slap him upside the head (“So!” Whack! “Many!” Whack! “Signs!” Whack!). As to whether or not the 3D process enhances them, I’ll let you be the judge. You know your theater better than I do. Perhaps the projection is brighter in your neck of the woods.
There are hints of a growing friendship between Po and Tigress, always the more hard-hearted of the Furious Five. I suppose this will eventually lead to a reliable interspecies romance, but let’s take things one at a time. After all, part three has yet to be released. These characters are only a small part of what makes Kung Fu Panda 2 an all-around wonderful film. The animation – a skillful blend of CGI and traditional hand-drawn cels – is boundless in its energy. The scenery, although entirely manufactured by the art directors and layout artists, are breathtaking in their beauty. The dialogue is kid-friendly, but never once does it play dumb. There’s depth to the characters, and yet they also retain a certain amount of delightful cartoon goofiness. It’s a film that the whole family, and not just the kids, will enjoy.