The second coming of Po the Dragon Warrior (and also panda) never seemed like a good idea to me. That first movie was so complete, so visually dazzling, witty and inventive, but more importantly, self-contained, that it didn’t seem like the franchise builder that Dreamworks, back in October ’08, announced that it was going to be. It’s been a while since I’ve been happy to be proved wrong, and by ‘eck, Kung Fu Panda goes about it with serious aplomb.
Going the Toy Story 2 route of sequel stories, it ups the emotional stakes and the scale, whilst at the same time managing to focus on character arcs that are distinctly fleshed out and interesting. Specifically to this, too, there are quite a few bold moves, particularly for a movie that is ostensibly aimed at children – from dealing with genocide to a reasonable effort to remove the on-the-nose nature of the original’s message.
The story goes that the mythical land of China has come under threat by none other than a rather vengeful peacock named Shen, who plans on using gunpowder and technology in an attempt to force the various kung-fu masters to submit to his reign. Staging his coup, it’s down to Po and the Furious Five to stop him, only they can’t until Po finds his inner peace, and becomes a true kung fu master. There’s also the question of quite how Shen and Po’s histories are intertwined, and details of this a slowly drip fed to us throughout.
It’s a logical continuation – legendary warriors continue to protect their country – but it’s beautifully thought out, with the exact nature of Po’s past being both intellectually and emotionally engaging, thanks to some superb animation work that very nearly makes you forgot that you’re looking at anthropomorphic animals. There’s also a depiction of Po as a cub that is so aggressively cute that if an ‘awww!’ doesn’t escape from your face, you probably left your soul in the popcorn stand.
The cast are all superb, with the Furious Five in particular allowed to shine rather more than they were in the previous movie. Angelina Jolie gets most of the meaty dialogue as Tigress, but even David Cross and Lucy Liu as Crane and Viper respectively have their moments in the spotlight. Jack Black brings his usual slacker charm to Po, but best of all is Gary Oldman as the rather psychotic Shen, his evilness tempered by a slick charm and sly wit that makes him one of the most intriguing villains in animation of late.
But the real star of the piece is the rather magical direction from Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who was responsible for the rather excellent shadow-puppet style dream sequence in the first movie, and makes her feature debut here. With the assured hand of a veteran, she blends CG with absolutely gorgeous, traditionally animated segments, as well as upping the game with the actions sequences – a scramble up a gargantuan collapsing tower and a showdown in a metal works being the two highlights.
To summarise, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a triumph. A sequel that is not only better than its predecessor, but one of the best animated movies since Toy Story 3. It works on a comedy front – there are at the very least five belly laughs in the film – an action movie front and indeed on a character development front, and if the ending of the film is to be believed, then a third instalment is an incredibly tantalising prospect. But for now, see this movie. It’s...well, awesome.