I'm way behind the curve in all things related to Kung Fu Panda. I didn't see the original film, and by the time it was in theaters and everyone was else was heaping praise on it, I was already around the corner and beating the gong on the "I'm Too Good For That Popular Thing That Everybody Seems To Love Now" bandwagon. I was a jaded and cynical, and too good for Jack Black and his chubby panda Po.
So when advertising started appearing for Kung Fu Panda 2, I was already rolling my eyes and thinking "Yeah, shocked. More of the same from DreamWorks. But the screening for the film happened to fall on a Saturday morning when I didn't have any plans, so I decided to go see it. To bone up as homework, I picked up the original film to watch so I'd know the storyline, which I'd gleaned from the trailers as "Kung fu-loving panda meets his heroes, learns kung fu, saves world." I figured it would be ho-hum, but at least I'd know who the characters were.
Boy, was I wrong. From the opening dream-sequence where Po is fighting alongside the Furious Five, to the very end of the credits (where there's a tiny little easter egg scene if you've never watched that far), I was engrossed in the entire movie. It was a mixture of amazing animation, terrific storytelling, and comedic performances from places I didn't expect. James Hong as Po's goose father Master Ping and Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu, a red panda.
The film pays particular attention to the journey of the hero as an archetype, something that has been central to Chinese storytelling for thousands of years. Rather thank making light of the ancestry of kung fu and the genre as a whole, the movie goes out of its way to show respect, without devolving into typical animated film fare. The original plan was to have the movie be a spoof in that exact vein, but director John Stevenson didn't want to approach it that way, and instead framed the film as a simplistic comedy. He's a very opinonated guy. Just check out the awesome speech he did at DICE earlier this year. Priceless.
Stevenson isn't back at the helm for Kung Fu Panda 2, instead the director's chair is now occupied by by Jennifer Yuh Nelson who was the head of story on the original film, and she directed that film's opening sequence. What she's put together is a decidedly darker film, with a much more evil lead villain Lord Shen, an albino Indian peafowl voiced by eternal baddie Gary Oldman. Po has to deal with much deeper issues than struggling to figure out if he's a hero or not, which is also something he address to some degree in this film.
In revealing how evil Shen is, Po has to take a look at his own past, including the revelation that Master Ping is not his real father. It turns out that Po was adopted (a fact that shocks no one except Po, given the animal heritage in the film), and he is forced to confront his own past through visions and dim memories. As it turns out, Shen had a hand in that past. A brutal, violent hand, and that's where the darker portions of Kung Fu Panda 2 reside.
But that's not to say that the entire movie is dark. There are lighthearted moments throughout, including a spectacular opening battle that is set to choreography, with the kicks, punches, and throws providing the punctuation to the music. That sets the bar fairly high for the rest of the film as far as action sequences are concerned, and the film manages to meet and exceed every expectation.
There's also the stirrings of a possible love interest between Po and Tigress as she proves that she's not just the cold, calculating kung fu artists that we saw in the first movie. Tigress is pivotal in helping Po explore his own past, and it's she who forces him to confront his own past and grow as an individual. Although he does grow throughout the story, he's still the same old lovable Po from the first film. As he leaps into one of the many battles in the movie, there's a slow motion moment where he looks left and right at his cohorts, exhlirating in the moment that he's now one of them. It's an ultimate fanboy moment.
Kung Fu Panda 2 is filled with over the top action sequences, tender moment, spot-on comedy, and brilliant animation. There are flashback moments with Po's parents told with both traditional 2D animation in a "Disneyfied" style, and cut-out animation providing Shen's backstory. Both of these are not jarring changes, but rather perfectly suited to the movie. There's only one hiccup near the end, a story element that feels like it was tossed in as an afterthought to plant a nugget for Kung Fu Panda 3. I'm all for teasing something yet to come in a franchise, but this one scene unravels much of what was achieved in this movie. It will be interesting to see how they address it.
Anyhow, quit reading this and get out of the house. Go see Kung Fu Panda 2. You won't be sorry. Unless you hate Pandas. In which case, I can't help you. Even if you've gotten slightly tired of Jack Black, Po is fresh enough to keep you in your seat.