Film Review: Kung Fu Panda 2

A sequel the equal of the original, as our portly protagonist delves into the mystery of his childhood, and confronts a villain who was there.

It's not surprising that each successive DreamWorks animated feature looks more beautiful than the one before, but the leap taken by this sequel to 2008's Kung Fu Panda takes your breath away like a side-thrust kick to the gut. Cinematographers speak of the "golden hour," those precious few minutes of liquid-amber sun that graces the world just after dawn and just before dusk, and the animators here recreate that light in a lonely, narrow street in ancient China, as a son leaves his father and late-afternoon shadows stretch on hushed, empty houses waiting for their owners to come home for the night. That an action-oriented, often slapsticky animated comedy can give us such a moment of melancholy and longing—of real emotion reflected in physical surroundings—is…well, Wall-E was the last animated feature to combine those things so beautifully, and look how well people regard that film.

Kung Fu Panda 2 in fact utilizes a variety of art styles: watercolor-like landscapes, shadow puppet-inspired flashbacks, and jangly, hard-edged anime for the harsh recovered memories that Po the Panda (voice of Jack Black) suffers when a visual cue triggers long-repressed horrors (albeit presented in kid-safe, PG-level visuals). That triggers the story as well: Po—now ensconced as the "Dragon Warrior," sixth member of the kung-fu heroes the Furious Five—has achieved his dream, and now wants to trace the path that brought him there. His father, noodle-shop owner Mr. Ping (82-year-old character-actor great James Hong, still delivering the goods), is a goose, after all. So where does Po come from? Who are his biological parents? Does nature matter, or is nurture enough?

As fate would have it—and like many tales of myth and legend, fate plays a big part here—Po's memories are awakened by an emblem of the peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman, with the vaguely British diction of movie villains from time immemorial). An outcast son who learned that the gunpowder used for fireworks could also create weapons, Shen and his wolf army had slaughtered whole villages of pandas years before, based on a prophecy that one would bring him doom. Now he commands a cannonade, and his heavily armed armada will set sail to conquer all of China—starting, of course, with the panda who got away.

A sequel the equal of the original, the film revels in inventive fight choreography, dry-humor asides that rarely feel forced, and some very funny hey-dude obliviousness from our portly panda protagonist. An exciting extended chase sequence through crowded streets gets a bit too cutesy with a bunch of baby bunnies. And two new characters, kung-fu masters Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Ox (Dennis Haysbert), aren't well-utilized and don't behave particularly logically—they won't fight Shen, since he'll destroy the city if they do, but they don't try to stop the Furious Five, which would presumably entail the same result. Such plot quibbles aside, the film works on both aesthetic and emotional levels, and is truly beautiful to behold—from the sight of warships slowly pushing along a canal to the open sea, to the enveloping, moss-covered cliffs that surround a valley of still water far below. Oh, and all this is rendered in very satisfying 3D—something unfortunately as rare as pandas themselves.