Kung Fu Panda 2 is the latest film from DreamWorks Animation, a company that notoriously doesn’t have a great track record with sequels, Shrek 3 was abysmal, Shrek 4 was decent enough, Madagascar 2 was passable; Shrek 2 was the only great DreamWorks sequel however, at least until now. Fortunately, DreamWorks now have another great sequel on their hands, Kung Fu Panda 1 was brilliant, hilarious, gorgeous and touching, one of the few DreamWorks films that could live up to the Pixar standard, and in my humble opinion, Kung Fu Panda 2 is even better.
It is a very epic feeling film; it is a huge spectacle and is rife with gigantic set pieces, brilliant fight scenes and more. There are several parts in the film, whether this comes in the form of a tower falling over in flames or a hilarious and wow-worthy fight in a Musician’s village, that will make you stop in awe. The animation enforces this thrill and glamour magically, like the quality of their films, DreamWorks animation quality varies from film to film, case in point, the animation in Shrek 4 was, in my eyes, not great in places, and I’m not really a fan of the art style of Madagascar at all, however here the animation is on top form. The visuals on display in this sequel are brilliant, everything pops and stands out; the fur on Po is a particular stand out. Some of the firework scenes are utterly breathtaking and are a testament to DreamWorks; it rivals some of the best Pixar visuals.
However, animation isn’t everything; the quality of the animation counts for nought if the film isn’t good; Kung Fu Panda 2, however, is great. It combines the comic with the tender, thus is the all too rare brilliance of DreamWorks. This film picks up right where the first one left off, after Po finally overcame his obstacles and became the Dragon Warrior, he is now living the dream, saving the world one epic battle at a time, in an equally hilarious fashion each time, however, everything is never as good as it seems. Through a very effective hand-drawn opening prologue (spoiler heavy from now on, proceed with care), we learn that the evil Lord Shen, fearful of karmic reprisal for his skulduggery and malevolence, foretold by a soothsayer, proceeds to wipe out every Panda in a fiery blaze and battle… except for one. Po, who is sent away from his parents for protection, is taken in by the kindly Mr. Ping (come on, did you really think that a Goose could be a Panda’s real dad?). From there on in, Po is no longer content, and strives to find his past and himself, while trying to save Kung Fu and all of China from Shen, who is a fantastic villain, despite being a peacock; 2011 has been a fantastic year for animated villains.
In terms of characters, the sequel sees the return of Po, the Furious Five, Master Shifu, Mr. Ping and all of the characters we knew and loved from the first film. The characters crafted by the first film were all fantastic, for a fairly goofy character like Po, there was a surprising amount of depth explored in him in the first film. However, Kung Fu Panda 2 sees even more development on all of the characters we know and love – exploring the father-son relationship of Po and Mr. Ping (on a side note, does that mean that Po is called Po Ping?, because that’s an awesome name) and teasing seeds of romance between Po and Tigress. This film also introduces us to some new ones, I particularly liked Masters Storming Ox and Croc, only working to add to the all round feel of the film. The strong characters are reinforced by a brilliant voice cast, consisting of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan and introducing Gary Oldman as the villainous Lord Shen. The quality of the voice cast is sublime, say what you like about DreamWorks, but they always have the star power (the majority of the spoilers are over now).
Another brilliant thing about Kung Fu Panda 2 is how it balances the emotional and the sincere with the hugely comedic, a main example is towards the end of the film, where Po finally confronts his demons to achieve inner peace and stop the deadly weapon of Lord Shen, only for his fist to be set on fire. On the flip side, some of the emotional moments between Po and Mr. Ping are heart warming and emotional, it heralds some of the most touching moments I’ve seen in an animated film since Toy Story 3. In terms of sheer comedy, there is one moment in particular, involving a hat (I’ll let you discover it for yourself), that I literally could not stop laughing at. I cite a large portion of this comedy as the work of Director, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who – after formerly working as a storyboard artist on Madagascar and the original Kung Fu Panda, the latter winning her an Annie Award – is the first woman to solely helm an animated film from a major Hollywood studio. Nelson’s timing is brilliant, in terms of laughs and tears; however, I’m going to assume that a decent amount of praise should also be heaped at the feet of Executive Producer, Guillermo del Toro, filmmaker extraordinaire.
The film started very strongly, I assumed it would wane towards the end, but, on the contrary,– until you see it you’ll have to take my word for it – it got even better.
While I loved the film, I can always find a few little gripes with anything. Kung Fu Panda 2 had somewhat of a tonal shift from the first film, having more of a grand scale, however, there are quite a few plot points repeated from the first film, like the tension between Po and Tigress and it doesn't feel that much different. However, this is just a tiny gripe, because I loved the first film and wouldn’t want the sequel to be too far removed from the high standard set by it. In fact, I actually think I preferred Kung Fu Panda 2 to the first film, it really is that good. This really is one of the better DreamWorks films, and one of the better animated films in general.
My only concern is that (with 4 more sequels on the way, the end of this film set up for that) they might ruin the franchise the way they did with Shrek. But at least this film was fantastic.