When I finished the review of Kung Fu Panda hours ago, I implied already that its sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2 released in 2011, surpasses it in quality and that’s not me being untruthful. Unlike the other sequel to the other worthwhile Dreamworks Animation film, How to Train Your Dragon 2, we do not have a film here that is completely inert towards it predecessors. Kung Fu Panda 2 knows what strengths Kung Fu Panda had and leaves as is, sure, without allowing it to progress in those areas, but it works itself in the spaces Kung Fu Panda didn’t feel as lived in with. At this point, its more than just the animation being so much better as would be with age, but so much of the environment is given a harsh crimson tone to the frames to really make everything so much… god, do I have to say it?
I hate saying that because I don’t think making a story “darker” makes it better, but when the visuals are so dedicated to giving the moment gravity even when intercutting the confrontation with a joke. It also probably helps when your villain is voiced by Gary Oldman, an actor who knows all too well how to make even just his voice make you shudder and avoid him. He’s not that bad here (we’re still in a kids’ movie, guys), but he’s pretty damn villainous as far as event the script aids him – introducing his peacock Lord Shen at the very beginning as an aristocrat who obsessed with the potential of fireworks to be weaponized. When his family’s soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh, who is also fantastic as the personified wisdom) foretells of “a warrior of black and white” taking down Shen, Shen commits the mass genocide of all pandas (told you it was darker) and is banished for it once his parents find out.
But hey, Shen’s not the guy we came to see. Instead, that is the very protagonist from the first film, Jack Black’s big panda Po, who is now a member of the Jade Temple with the same kung fu masters he admired – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Monkey (Jackie Chan) – training and fighting crime and maintaining a status as a legend. Which is great, Po never needs to reprove his worth, he doesn’t have trouble with Furious Five or their red panda Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Unlike most sequels (*cough*The Force Awakens*cough*), returning writers Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Burger don’t see a need to backtrack and bring Po back to square one at any point, just using the first Kung Fu Panda for familiarity rather than as a blueprint. In addition, Tigress has much more to do as a character, becoming Po’s closest ally and confidante (and displaying a natural rapport between Black and Jolie that I would have never guessed existed… it sure wasn’t in the first movie).
That doesn’t mean that Po is suddenly without conflict as Shen suddenly returns to his old home after his parents’ death and intends to use his gunpowder harnessed now to build cannons, a weapon that will render kung fu an obsolete form. In the meanwhile, Po has to face the familiarity of Shen’s sigil – bringing back childhood memories long since repressed – and his goose father Mr. Ping’s (James Hong) admittance that Po is adopted. Both have answers that are obviously easy for us to figure out but it doesn’t make Po’s struggle to find “inner peace” any easier.
The name of the game for that struggle is of course combat, given that the movie does have the words “Kung Fu” in its titles but that also happens to be the point in which I am most impressed by Kung Fu Panda 2 as a movie. I don’t know that I’ve seen enough fight scenes in animation (I certainly don’t watch enough anime, in which I’m certain there’s a lot of fighting), but Kung Fu Panda 2 has, as far as I have seen, some of the best fighting animation yet. The sequences are edited in a manner that totally pays kindred to the martial arts films of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee and Gordon Liu and such, long wide angle shots of combat between characters in the middle of battle, at points struggling to catch up with them but always having them impressively in the frame. In the meantime, the actual movements of the characters are elegant and – especially in the case of Shen – base their actions on their animal basis that I’m actually very impressed that the filmmakers dedicated so much time to this. Kung Fu Panda 2 may very well be more of an action film than a comedy and I’m not just saying that because the comedy is admittedly more lousy than the already simply tolerable humor of the first film.
It’s clearly no accident that the director of this movie, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, also directed the opening of the first movie, which – remember – is my favorite moment of the first movie (in a very impressive twist off of that opening scene’s 2D, Kung Fu Panda 2 introduces 2D flashbacks of Po’s childhood that increase depth and dimension as he revisits them until they are CGI as well… it’s a really intelligent use of the animation to reflect clarity of mind and memory. I wish I caught this movie in 3-D.). Kung Fu Panda 2‘s choice in character movement is so deliberate and aware of itself that it’d have to be made by a person who really wanted to show just why these characters are considered kung fu masters and given the medium of choice and how much variety would be necessary to give even non-entity characters (like frankly most of the Furious Five) personality and presence in their fighting styles is extremely admirable.
But man, I guess I’m just gushing because Kung Fu Panda 2 is not close to a perfect movie. Like I said, characters are roundly ignored (I feel Shifu – given his importance as the Five’s master – gets the shortest end of the stick, but I also always felt Hoffman was the weakest voice performance of both movies). There’s not a really clear thoroughline of Shen’s parental issues (which are dropped and picked up again and again) and his intentions with the cannons and gunpowder (first he uses it to ransom China from the Kung Fu Masters; then to ransom China from… China?). The comedy is worse here than the first movie, since even if the comedy wasn’t sophisticated before, at least it didn’t threaten to derail some scenes.
And yet the movie satisfies me immensely. I’m willing to call it the second best Dreamworks Animated Film yet (How to Train Your Dragon still mows it down) and that comes from how willing it is to real gravity to its scenario (even if the stakes aren’t fully defined) and make Po feel more evolved. It is the greatest respect ever given to a Jack Black character to show that his characters can possibly continue to grow and learn to be at ease with themselves.
Or maybe I’m just gushing because I’m just as fanboyish about martial arts movies, animation, and Jack Black as Po is about kung fu. But I don’t give a damn.