It’s been a few years now since I saw Kung Fu Panda (2008), but I remember it being a lot of fun and a surprise hit from Dreamworks, whose most notable releases prior were ANTZ (1998) and Shrek (2001). With How to Train Your Dragon last year, Dreamworks started to bridge the mighty gap between themselves and Pixar. I would argue, with this enjoyable action-packed sequel, that they have easily surpassed Pixar’s latest, Cars 2. Jack Black returns to provide the voice for the loveable Po and a stellar voice cast, headlined by the addition of the great Gary Oldman, joins him again. Kung Fu Panda 2, directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson from a screenplay by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, is exhilarating and recommended holiday viewing. It screened at the Cannes Film Festival prior to its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, where it ended up finishing second in the audience voting.
This time around, Po (Jack Black) is searching for the truth to his identity and trying to rid China of an evil peacock, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), who has set out to reclaim rule of Gongmen City. He plans to destroy the tradition of kung-fu and utilise his newly acquired weapon to conquer China. Meanwhile, in the Valley of Peace, Po is living the dream as the Dragon Warrior. Viewed as a celebrity around town, Po protects the Valley alongside fellow kung-fu masters Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Viper and Crane (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu and David Cross). Po is informed by Grand Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) that he is yet to find inner peace, a spiritual realm he will be unable to access while the mystery of his parents plagues him. When wolf bandits trying to steal refined metal for Lord Shen attack the Valley, Po and his colleagues retaliate by setting out for Gongmen City to infiltrate Shen’s Tower.
It is to be expected now, when watching an animated film, to find the visuals top notch. Panda 2 is certainly no exception. The animation is mind-blowing. From the intricacy of the details that make up Gongmen City and Shen’s Tower, to the green fields that surround Soothsayer’s house, to the red glow given off by Shen’s warrior ships, nearly every frame is stunningly beautiful. Sure, it is darkened somewhat by the 3D technology, but I have actually seen few animated films utilise the technology better. For once, I applaud the decision to use 3D. It is worth the ticket price alone to experience the excitement of the inventive, expertly choreographed and stunningly captured action sequences. Utilising enough slapstick to keep it amusing for the little ones, these exceptional sequences also feel like they have genuine dramatic stakes and the characters incorporate props and found objects to great effect. Po, and each of the Furious Five have unique abilities (as do their opponents) and the villains have a credible AI.
The voice performances again, are top notch, but it is Gary Oldman who is the stand out. He effortlessly endows his feathered fiend with a menacing snarl, a fierce desire for power and an insecure vulnerability about his past and the prophecy at risk of coming to fruition. From memory, Ian McShane’s voice performance in Kung Fu Panda as Tai Lung was exceptional too. It’s always great to have an engaging villain. While some will criticise the implausibility of having the characters fear a peacock, the animators do a wonderful job rendering him fearful and ruthless and endowing him with metal taloned feet, a lethal fan tail and a balletic fighting style.
What lets the film down somewhat, and this seems strange to say following all of the amazing features this film possesses, is that it isn’t particularly memorable. This is not a film I am likely to seek out in the future to watch again on DVD. I’m not really sure why, but it still seems to lack the charm of certain Pixar classics. The film is so focused on Po, and his independent mission to avenge his parents, that the rest of the Furious Five are pushed aside. Tigress has the most screen time, but the rest are limited to their involvement in the action sequences, and a line here and there. Just as disappointing are the roles of Masters Storming Ox (Dennis Haysbert) and Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who are confined to a prison cell for the entire film, and Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), whose role is solely to instruct Po is seek out Inner Peace, and then has very little to do.
But Po is likeable and fun, and Gary Oldman’s Lord Shen is a great villain. It is through their shared abandonment as youths and their prophesied rivalry, that the film remains engaging. While the film explores darker themes of genocide, lost childhood and tyranny (predominantly through the sketched flashbacks), the plot is primarily concerned with moving the characters from one action sequence to the next. It shares similarities to the first film, which I would argue is lighter, funnier and more watchable. But this perfectly respectable sequel has some pretty darn exciting battles, and emotional resonance to boot. The immense effort put into the animation and the score (a Hans Zimmer and John Powell collaboration), and the building of a film that respectfully nods to Chinese action cinema, is recognisable. First with How to Train Your Dragon, and now Kung Fu Panda 2, Dreamworks have proven they can build an action-packed and entertaining film without forgetting about a heartfelt and engaging narrative to drive it.
My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars (B)
For more of my reviews, check out my blog: Andy Buckle’s Film Emporium.