KUNG FU PANDA 2 (2011) review
written by: Jennifer Aibel & Glenn Berger
produced by: Melissa Cobb, Jennifer Aibel, Glenn Berger & Guillermo del Toro
directed by: Jennifer Yu
rated PG (for sequences of martial arts action and mild violence)
U.S. release date: May 26, 2011
Here is a sequel that can save us all from sequel fatigue. It is a movie that embraces and expands on established characters, while broadening the overall scope of the artfully crafted world previously created. At no point does this visually stunning story reach a lull or suffer in quality, it is purely a delightful surprise that balances clever laughs, epic action, and heartfelt drama. This isn’t Dreamworks just trying to cash in on a proven blockbuster by, although for a change, that will be a deserving reward in this case.
“Kung Fu Panda 2” is exactly what I want in a sequel. It successfully builds off what worked the first time and instead of giving us more of the same, it provides us with a thoroughly enjoyable new experience. The first animated feature was a fun new take on the classic hero’s journey and now we have a uniquely crafted origin tale, giving us a panda with an identity crisis that can only be solved by confronting an evil albino peacock. The surprising result is a sequel that is bigger and better, with its heart in the right place.
He may be well-known in the Valley of Peace as the Dragon Warrior now, but Po (voiced by Jack Black) is still the lovable, thrill-seeking rotund panda from the first film. Po is thrilled to be protecting his homeland alongside his friends, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross), Snake (Lucy Liu), and Monkey (Jackie Chan), the other kung fu masters known as the Furious Five. His lessons have not ceased though, as wise Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, returning in excellent form) imparts on him the importance of finding inner peace. A teaching that the impetuous Po will soon learn is very challenging to put to practice.
But learn it he must as the villainy of Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), the abandoned and disgraced son of the former Peacock Emperor, threatens to eliminate kung fu and rule all of China. Equipped with explosive weapons of massive destruction, the seething Shen and his army of savage wolves must be stopped by Po and the Furious Five. That becomes more difficult than expected, when Po must deal with hidden memories that surface which reveal an unsettling connection between Shen and how he came to be raised by his loving father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), a humble goose restaurateur. With his identity shrouded in mystery, Po must find the strength to push through any doubt to save his friends and all of China, as well as find out who he really is.
Returning screenwriters, Jennifer Aibel and Glenn Berger have impressively crafted a story that is a multi-layered improvement of their groundwork from the last film. While not as cartoonish, there are still plenty of laughs in a story that provides a variety of bigger and better. But these writers, who affectively balance a roster of colorful creatures through a somewhat darker tone, aren’t just relying on a knee-slapping good time filled with creative explosions. At its core, “Kung Fu Panda 2” has solid characterization to connect with, providing a tender origin tale, and most of all, a heartfelt script that the wonderful cast can embrace.
I’m reluctant to give any more of the plot, but I’m delighted to report that there is indeed quite a bit more going on here than you’d think for a non-Pixar animated feature. Clearly, with this film and last year’s “How to Train Your Dragon”, DreamWorks has solidified themselves as a Disney rival to be respected.
Jennifer Yuh is the first woman to direct an animated feature and her direction is practically flawless. Having worked in the field for some time as an illustrator and storyboard artist (including directing the inventive 2D opening from “Kung Fu Panda”, a welcome style also incorporated here in flashbacks and dream sequences), she displays a bold confidence and a firm grasp of visual delights. From the vast Asian landscapes to the exquisite anthropomorphic details, this is a movie to easily get lost in. For a change, the 3D adds a stunning depth that enhances and elevates the big-screen action, instead of frustrating viewers with blurry images and gimmicky effects. This is a worthy journey into a currently overused extra dimension.
One weakness might be that the movie is packed with so many interesting characters, which left me wanting more time with them. This is especially true with Master Rhino (Victor Garber), Master Ox (Dennis Haysbert) and Master Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme), the new formidable kung fu masters that Po and the gang try to rescue in the bustling Gongmen City. It’s understandable that only so many characters get screen time, but when there are this well-designed and acted, I couldn’t help but to want to know more about them. Since there will supposedly be a total of six of these movies (surprisingly, no complaints from this fan), I’m going to guess that we will see more of these guys, and then some.
That’s a minor gripe though, considering that plenty of development and care is given to the characters crucial to this particular story. In a rare turn for animated films, we actually get a well-developed villain in Shen, complete with his own realized backstory that serves as the source of his motivation. Oldman is menacing in his line delivery, yet produces the right balance of fear and quirk, that easily draws in viewers. The unpredictable Shen is well adept in martial arts, equipped with sharp knives under his wings, but he’s more of a thinker than a fighter.
Shen has his right hand wolf (Danny McBride) to take care of his dirty work though, leading his army of bandits, who fight and steal their way across the land at the service of their lord. But Shen can’t escape the prophesy told years ago by a wise Soothsayer (a fantastic Michelle Yeoh), that proclaimed that a black and white warrior would be the end of him, if he didn’t change his dark ways.
Black’s recent live-action comedic turns have been excruciating, so his return to the roly poly role of Po is welcome. Playing more for drama than laughs this time around, (make no mistake, there are plenty of laughs), what resonates most is Po’s struggle with who he is as he starts to remember images from his cub years. Some of Black’s best work is the interaction he has with Jolie and Hong. As Tigress, Jolie has accepted Po as a dear friend and is willing to challenge him to see himself for who he is. At the same time, Hong touchingly portrays Mr. Ping as the father goose worried that he might lose his son, once the truth is revealed.
Like many animated action movies, “Kung Fu Panda 2” concludes with the inevitable epic smackdown, yet this final battle finds Po channeling the one lesson his Master had impressed upon him. We see it coming all along, but the way in which Po dispenses what he has learned is simply breathtaking. It’s a touching emotional climax that gives a fitting response to the story’s search for identity and purpose. Ultimately, this sequel was pleasing on a variety of levels, so much so that for once I didn’t cringe at its blatant set-up for another movie. I can’t wait to spend more time with these animals.