When an animated movie hits the right note for me, it really knocks it out of the park. I’ve sat through my fair share of awful animated movies, and when one screws up the formula, it’s really hard to sit through. You can see the resolution coming a mile away, and the jokes that fail to hit the golden balance between kids and adults makes you want to jump out of a window. Thankfully, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a classic benchmark for efficiently mixing humor, action, and a hybrid sort of story into a single awesome movie that’ll give any age group an unshakable smirk, and it might just teach you something. Kung Fu Panda 2 picks up a few years after Kung Fu Panda 1, where Po the Dragon Warrior Panda (Jack Black) has become a hero of China but is still the bumbling, “ska-doosh”-ing hero we love leading the Furious Five that includes Mantis (Seth Rogen), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). The movie focuses on Po and the gang’s attempt to overthrow the evil Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a vengeful peacock that with the help of a baffling new weapon plans on bring China and kung-fu itself to its knees. I’m usually not a fan of all-star casts like DreamWorks uses a lot of times, but the Kung Fu Panda series is one of those exceptions. Jack Black is practically the Picasso of the voice work art form. The guy clearly has a lot of fun in the voice booth getting to become Po, and it helps that they both have a lot in common personality wise. It’s just refreshing to have an actor bring so much fun, physicality, and innocence to what could have been a bland character. I like that certain characters like Seth Rogen as Mantis and Jackie Chan as Monkey get more time on screen, and I even liked what new-comer Danny McBride brought in as the leader of Lord Shen’s wolf pack. While he’s not really gotten a huge break, he has a very clear shtick in a lot of his films that for some reason was really funny to see animated. I’m pretty sure they even let him improvise on a few lines of the dialogue, which is pretty unheard of, but a perfect opportunity for the hysterical McBride to stretch his legs. James Hong, just as he was in the first film, is a hilarious addition to the movie as Po’s “father goose”/noodle storeowner. Gary Oldman though as the nefarious Lord Shen is almost unrecognizable. It’s a running joke on Internet message boards that Gary Oldman is in almost every movie that comes out, yet it was a huge surprise to me that he was in this. Surprise or not, Oldman’s incarnation of Shen is commendable, as he gives it just the right pause of words here, the right menacing flourish to make Lord Shen really intimidating. He clearly gives it his all, and easily becomes the best villain this series has and probably ever will see. The look of all these characters has also improved dramatically. Re-watching parts of the original Kung Fu Panda just the other day, the older models by no means look dated, but the increased quality in small things like shading and detail on the characters looks phenomenal. Take a moment to look at just the fur on Po or Tigress in the snowy mountain or harbor scenes, just to admire that painstaking detail. Also just on an artistic level these characters are a huge animation milestone. I really dug the aesthetic of the wolves and gorillas as sort of Shen’s “brute force”, and while we’re on the topic of Lord Shen, that character in and of itself is a wonder to behold. DreamWorks deserves a standing ovation for making a laughable conceit like a peacock as a villain one of the fiercest villains to ever be animated. Lord Shen must have been a pain in the rear to animate but is almost like a Swiss army knife, being as there are about 17 different things he can do with his unique body structure, including using his wreath of feathers as a shield AND projectile stash, using metal claws to gain traction and as a landing support, and oh yeah, he also has a sweet sword. This world that the characters inhabit is also gorgeous, the animators once again going out of their way to create a faithful but still creatively complimentary portrayal of ancient China. Each shot seems to incorporate a temple, mountain ridge, or just a peaceful but artistically vibrant Chinese marketplace, and it’s like some kind of amazing mosaic. While this is a small detail, I also really dug the idea of making everything around Shen a deep red and black any time he goes into a rant or is up to another nefarious deed, giving us as an audience an immediate feel that he’s got to be up to something. I might also make a point of picking up the movie’s score by Hans Zimmer, a very traditional but effective track that gave off a really old school kung-fu movie vibe. Would you think that’s the end of this movie’s artistic luster? Of course not, there are a handful of flashback scenes that use a really magnificent hand-drawn, 2D style to signify the shift in time. It reminded me a lot of the same historical Chinese style the film harkened back to in so many other aspects. It’ll go unappreciated by kids, but to a film nerd it’s an amazing touch. Kung Fu Panda 2 really is a remarkable feat in how it has a really great attitude about itself. A little too often we get these animated films that are a little too snarky, they’ve always got this smart-allecky smirk underneath all of its jokes and tender moments, but that never felt like the case to me with Kung Fu Panda 2. Everything it’s doing on screen always felt really genuine and sweet to me. I’ve discovered that I’m addicted to the recurring idea of normal people (and in a lot of cases people we’d normally associate as geeky, out of shape, or just a loser) doing amazing things. I mean I’m a huge fan of the show “Chuck” on NBC, and so many other pieces of work much like how Kung Fu Panda 2 with Po the very unfit Panda, probably because I can find a lot to relate to there. Once that hero gets to accomplish his goal at the end it means all that much more because he had a lot more to overcome, including other’s expectations. No one’s really surprised when James Bond saves the world for the umpteenth time, but when a down-on-his-luck nerdy guy with a heart of gold gets the girl or stops the bad guy, you just want to cheer. Much like Po from start to finish the movie does have a very innocent soul, and that helps the action and comedic moments hit so much better, mainly because the characters are just as astonished as you are that they just saved the day.
From a more creative standpoint, the filmmakers really did do a great job at stepping up their game on a lot of the fantastic aspects of the first film and telling the unique story they tell here. Kung Fu Panda 2 is very much an origin story, but some how it manages to not fall into the predictability of that or even make that the only focus of the film. They use Po’s origins that are touched on throughout to make the new story make more sense and to even advance that story farther, mainly because Lord Shen has a much stronger connection Po’s past than you’re initially led to believe. We get to learn who Po’s real parents were, what happened to them, and who Po really is in these 2D cell-shaded animated sequences that often go to some dark, scary places (thanks mostly to Executive Producer Guillermo Del Toro) without being too daunting for kids. I didn’t expect Kung Fu Panda 2 to match or even top Kung Fu Panda 1’s action or comedy, but somehow it managed to top it. Who knows, maybe I was in an awesome mood going into the theater, but I was floored by how funny Kung Fu Panda 2 was. Of course there’s your fat joke here and there, Po’s hysterical habit of shouting out plan names for completely unpredicted battle scenarios as if he had planned them months in advance, and several other kid-aimed bits of humor, I was laughing a good 15 minutes after some of the hilarious scenes I won’t even spoil here. The action sequences also aren’t just beautiful, they’re much more creative this time around, and often times really take advantage of the animation medium, creating some gorgeous scenes you just couldn’t ever do with live action. The set piece from the trailer where the Furious Five have to scale Shen’s palace is remarkable, and manages to be as hilarious as some the movie’s best jokes at the same time. Along with a chase scene in a Chinese marketplace between Po and the Wolf Pack Leader, of course the final battle between Po and Lord Shen, and a handful of other action pieces here and there throughout the film are just awesome. From start to finish I was never bored with the movie, I never had any idea where the story was going to go next, and I was constantly entertained in the best way by this absorbing story, engaging action and great moments of hilarity. I can only imagine what it would be like to see this as a kid. I’ll admit, I didn’t see the film in 3D but I cheaped out and went with the 2D print of the movie, and while I’ve heard the 3D print is actually worth it, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything without the glasses. Much like a lot of other cases I didn’t miss the glasses. If there’s anything I could really complain about here, it’s that I felt the movie was a little too short for me. While that’s a pretty good compliment of your film that I wanted to spend more time in the world you created, at about 90 minutes it felt just a little rushed in places like we were moving from plot point to plot point pretty quickly. Also, while I did love the fantastic cliffhanger ending to this movie, the concept that they’re setting up has set a few other animated series astray. I have the utmost faith in this crew, and hopefully we’ll see a Kung Fu Panda 3 in the next few years, but they’ll really have to knock it out of the park. All in all, I had an amazing time watching Kung Fu Panda 2; it’s a film I feel like I could recommend to any age group, knowing they’ll leave the theater satisfied. Not just in terms of improving and innovating the animation game, but when you’re trying to find a hilarious, sweet, good-natured animated movie with a sincerely great message, there are few animated movies this summer that’ll come close to topping Kung Fu Panda 2’s mastery of kung-fu. As I wrap up, let me make something clear, I am a firm believer in the lifestyle of being awesome. Be awesome to others, treat yourself awesome, do awesome things, live an awesome life, and it’s rare that a film embodies the spirit of awesome quite like Kung Fu Panda 2 does. It’ll be a film I re-watch over and over in a couple of months just to remind myself what “awesome” really is. It’s almost like a poster child for awesomeness, and I feel as if that’s one of the best compliments and best descriptions I can give it.
5 out of 5