Perhaps it was a panda that helped DreamWorks roar…
To this writer, Kung Fu Panda was what pulled DreamWorks out of a little phase they were stuck in. After the runaway success of Shrek and its monolithic sequel in the early-to-mid aughts, DreamWorks for a little while made features that I felt were gimmicky. Basically family movies, but peppered with snarky attitude and “mature” jokes that attempt to make the pictures seem “adult.” I was there… Shrek 2 and Shark Tale were out when I was in seventh grade, my peers mostly preferred those, and sneered at The Incredibles. While following features showed potential, a lot of them just felt like product made to make a quick buck off and capitalize on whatever might’ve been trendy back then.
2008‘s Kung Fu Panda forsook all of that, and just simply told a great, family-friendly story that meshed martial arts action, heart, and some fun fantastical elements. On top of that, the film was beautiful to look at, sported excellent design, and contained amped up kung fu action that only animation is capable of bringing. Kung Fu Panda 2, like a great sequel, built on all of that some three years later…
Kung Fu Panda 2 successfully brings back everything that worked in the first film, but thankfully it does not feel like a mere rehash. The world of Kung Fu Panda, an Ancient China setting on an alternate Earth inhabited only by anthropomorphic, human-like animals a la Disney animated features like Robin Hood and Zootopia, is expanded in Kung Fu Panda 2. We see life outside of Po’s home, we see other kung fu masters, we even get to learn a brief history of another city… There’s more to explore here.
After defeating Tai Lung and saving the Valley of Peace in Kung Fu Panda, Po now faces a new challenge in his life as the Dragon Warrior. Learning from Master Shifu that he must find inner peace, Po’s village is threatened by the henchmen of an evil peacock named Lord Shen. Years ago, he was heir to the throne in the faraway Gongmen City, but was exiled because he wanted to take over all of China after weaponizing the city’s newest creation: Fireworks.
Po and the Furious Five first get wind of Lord Shen when his henchmen maraud the valley for metals, which they are collecting for Shen’s many cannons. Later, Lord Shen uses one of those very cannons to kill Gongmen City’s protector, Master Thundering Rhino. From there, Po and his comrades set off an epic adventure to avenge Master Rhino and stop Lord Shen from taking over China. During the journey, Po little by little learns more about his past and how he ended up in the Valley of Peace with a goose foster father.
What has come back? The likability of our main character hasn’t vanished, and the Furious Five are still a lot of fun to watch. The kinetic and jaw-dropping action is back, too, and perhaps it’s even more exhilirating than ever before. Kung Fu Panda 2 utilizes the animated medium like few other CG films being made these days, staging its fight scenes impeccably while meshing the action with a cartoony sensibility that nicely mixes the absurd and the feasible. The filmmakers seemingly understand that CGI is helping make live-action movies do the impossible, so these talented folks strive to do what a live-action film with all the VFX trickery in the world can’t do. Kung Fu Panda 2 is something you just can’t do in live-action.
It’s brilliant, really. Action-oriented animation, for the most part, has had trouble catching on at the North American box office for various reasons. Kung Fu Panda 2, like its predecessor, lead the general public in with funny animals but wowed them with great spectacle and top-notch storytelling. There was such an honesty to the first Kung Fu Panda that made me appreciate it, even if it had a few flimsy moments in its script. Kung Fu Panda 2 does somewhat suffer that same problem, a few times the dialogue is a bit off and some awkwardly-written lines can be a little intrusive in a couple of scenes… But you almost don’t care because of just how likeable the whole thing is. Po’s lack of formality is offset by his genuine passion for kung fu. It carries the first one, and it more than rockets the sequel.
Po’s backstory is expanded upon, and never is it played out in a trite fashion. Through a series of vivid and nightmarish flashbacks, we learn about where he came from and what he witnessed as a cub. Kung Fu Panda 2 surprisingly took something of an Empire Strikes Back-esque route, choosing to breathe some darkness into the proceedings. Several pandas were killed by Lord Shen, including Po’s mother, and we get a glimpse of that genocide in Po’s visions. The first film was not without its more intense moments, but this sequel did not hold back and didn’t feel the need to be a “kids’ film.” The darker sequences are very effective, they’re beautifully realized through very abstract traditional animation that’s not dissimilar to the gorgeous animated opening of the first film. The action packs a lot of punch as well. The climax on the waterfront is almost balletic, topping the comedic final battle of the first film in nearly every way.
Lord Shen is a great villain because of all this. While Tai Lung was indeed a strong first boss, Lord Shen has a personal connection to Po and his demeanor just oozes with menace. In some scenes, his evil is even outright challenged. Will ruling all of China truly satisfy him?
The other new characters add quite a bit to the story as well, such as kung fu legends Master Thundering Ox and Master Croc. The goat Soothsayer balances it all and brings everything together, what with her knowing of Shen’s deeds and Po’s past. The Furious Five get plenty of great moments throughout the story, and several side characters – from Shen’s gorilla henchmen to Gongmen City civilians – have their moments. The cast, both old and new, bring their all. Gary Oldman particularly sticks out as Shen.
A little bigger, a little darker, just as heartfelt and funny as the first film, Kung Fu Panda 2 is how you do a sequel.