As filmmaker Brad Bird is fond of pointing out, animation is not a genre. Though you’ll often see animated films grouped together at your local video store, as if they all share a common thematic framework, there is not one particular kind of story archetype that permeates every animated movie. Animation is a filmmaking technique. It can be used for action, comedy, drama or simply raw personal expression. Like any filmmaking technique, animation can be used to varying degrees of success. Kung Fu Panda 2, the sequel to the hit 2008 animated martial arts comedy, manages to utilize two different filmmaking techniques (animation and 3D) extremely well, resulting in a kinetic, action-packed sugar burst of excitement that manages to rise above its obvious flaws to become something overwhelmingly enjoyable.
Jack Black returns to voice Po, a giant panda who has recently found himself named as The Dragon Warrior. Joined by the Furious Five, a team of anthropomorphic animal warriors voiced by actors as varied as Angelina Jolie to Seth Rogen, he is tasked with being the supreme protector of the Valley of Peace. This time around Po gets tangled up in the evil plot of a foul peacock attempting to overtake China through the use of new, advanced weaponry.
Kung Fu Panda 2 doesn’t waste too much time on exposition. The film assumes viewers are either the hyperactive children who’ve already seen the original Kung Fu Panda a hundred times since it hit DVD or they are the worn-out, beaten-down parents whose taste in entertainment has been chipped away by years of Yo Gabba Gabba! and VeggieTales.
Immediately, audiences are thrown into the film’s action — and therein lies the film’s strength. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson and her team of animators have created some truly impressive fight scenes that utilize the power of animation and the added depth of 3D to immerse audiences into highly stylized action scenes that pay tribute to the best of chopsocky Hong Kong flicks. As long as the film keeps moving and audiences are thrust along from fight scene to fight scene, Kung Fu Panda 2 works exceedingly well.
It’s when the film stops to take a breather and air out some of its maudlin displays of over-sentimentality and hackneyed emotional triteness that the film’s target audience of children becomes exceedingly apparent. While both kids and adults will be impressed by the film’s action scenes, only the young or dim-witted will be at all surprised by the film’s storybook plot and cookie cutter characters.
Jack Black’s Po takes center stage for the sequel. The Furious Five and Master Shifu, a Red Panda mentor to Po (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), are little more than garnishes to Po’s character arc. Light in dialogue and non-existent in development, the characters are there to back up Po’s fighting and add to the number of fists available whenever it comes time for characters to brawl.
Black thankfully has toned down much of his in-your-face wackiness for the sequel. This time around Po is a much more subdued panda. He is, however, still prone to over-the-top displays of hunger and laziness but has become much more introspective. As Po fights to save China he also must fight to discover his hidden past and make peace with his place in the world.
These bouts of self-reflection don’t amount to much in the larger picture, though. While Pixar can deftly walk the emotional tightrope between sentimentality and genuine drama, Kung Fu Panda 2 wields its sappiness like a pair of nunchacku, waiving it around in a display of exuberance without making contact with anything of substance. And it’s in the film’s antagonist, Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman) where we find something spectacular happening.
Oldman threatens to steal the show with his performance as Lord Shen, the film’s evil peacock. I almost wonder if Dreamworks Animation had a bet going on of whether or not they could turn something as seemingly harmless as a peacock into the ultimate of badasses. Well, they did. Lord Shen is equal parts megalomaniacal and genuinely threatening.
Utilizing an army of wolves (the leader of the pack voiced by Danny McBride), Lord Shen seeks to overtake his country with an unstoppable new weapon. Like so many great villains, though, it’s Lord Shen’s pettiness that defines him. Seemingly responsible for genocide, a pretty weighty topic for an animated film to be sure, Lord Shen is a hard-core baddy and provides an excellent antagonist for the film.
Kung Fu Panda 2 mixes in a few different varieties of animation. From traditional cell-animation tweaked for the digital age to paper doll puppets to exquisitely detailed computer animation, Kung Fu Panda 2 looks superb — easily equaling (if not coming close to surpassing) the best animation offered up in the last five years.
While Kung Fu Panda 2 may come off as amateurish whenever it tries to play for the heartstrings, its deft mastery of action and stunning visuals make this the top film choice to see this weekend. The Hangover Part II rests on its well-worn formula and strives for nothing more than simple repetition. Kung Fu Panda 2, on the other hand, exceeds its precurser in almost every single way.
Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Notable Cast: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jean-Claude Van Damme
Writer(s): Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger