There is a moment in Kung Fu Panda 2 Dreamworks’ stellar follow-up to its 2008 talking-animal blockbuster that is as clever and subversive as any I’ve seen in recent animated films. Just before the climactic final battle our hero Po (Jack Black) thought to have been vanquished re-appears above a rooftop to declare his challenge to the villainous Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) who sits upon a battleship in the canal below preparing mount his siege. As Po launches into his speech the camera pulls back to reveal that Shen is in fact well out of earshot; he can’t make out a single word the panda is saying. Shen pleas in vain for him to speak up only to give up in frustration and commence his assault forthwith.
There are lovely bits like this scattered throughout Kung Fu Panda 2 little moments that undermine traditional action-movie tropes to hilarious effect. Much praise is owed to director Jennifer Yuh Nelson and returning writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger who have adroitly addressed the chief – and arguably only – complaint about the first film: that its story was too lightweight too formulaic too cautiously adherent to the conventional hero’s journey blueprint. Their follow-up may not be as charming or whimsical as its predecessor but it makes up for it with added depth and emotional resonance.
How much depth you ask? Genocide childhood abandonment issues and industrialization’s destabilizing effects are just a few of the formidable topics touched upon in the sequel. But don’t fret; the filmmakers haven’t suddenly set their sights on Pixar-grade profundity. The tone of Kung Fu Panda 2 is still as earnest and unpretentious – and joyful – as before.
And it’s still anchored by a refreshingly restrained Black as the voice of Po the chubby noodle-slinger turned kung fu superstar. The second installment finds Po and the Furious Five – Tigress (Angelina Jolie) Mantis (Seth Rogen) Crane (David Cross) Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Viper (Lucy Liu) – facing a formidable new foe in the diminutive guise of Lord Shen a seething tyrant whose new invention the cannon threatens to make kung fu obsolete. Po has a personal connection with the peacock: It was Shen who spooked by a soothsayer’s premonition sacked Po’s native village several years prior forcing Po’s parents to ship their infant son off to safety – and onto the doorstep of his adoptive father Mr. Ping (James Hong).
Po’s only hope of victory his mentor Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) informs him is to find inner peace. (That’s all?!?) The path to nirvana is a jagged one marked with dizzying chases and riveting kung fu battles all elaborately choreographed and beautifully rendered. As we’ve come to expect with CG sequels the animation in Kung Fu Panda 2 surpasses that of the previous film retaining its signature look while adding greater detail and more exquisite landscapes. Though the 3D is top-quality I would still recommend seeing the film in 2D if only because of the darkening effect caused by so many 3D projectors. Colors these lush deserve as bright a canvas as possible.