For a film that is perfectly described by its title, the first Kung Fu Panda was a perfectly fine kids’ animation, in which Jack Black did the voice of a panda that learns kung fu. Witty, beautiful animation and well-done martial arts choreography performed by anthropomorphic animals, that’s what you wanted from Kung Fu Panda, which is by no means a classic. In the case of its sequel (originally titled The Kaboom of Doom), it does replay those aspects, only bigger and surprisingly better.
As the Dragon Warrior, the panda Po and the Furious Five must stop the evil peacock Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman) from ruling China with his kung fu-destroying weapon. At the same time, Po discovers that he is adopted (since his father’s a goose) and attempts to find the truth of his mysterious past.
Despite the story is not as mature as the filmmakers wanted it to be and although it is another typical journey of self-discovery, the narrative is more engaging the second time round. This is largely due to the involvement of executive producer Guillermo del Toro, who as a creative consultant brings an emotional level to the characterisation of Po. Despite being the clumsy panda who just happens to know martial arts, Po becomes a hero we can sympathise with as we learn more about his past which is both mysterious and yet familiar to him.
Also, we see a stunning animated world which wonderfully references Chinese culture, which gives its environments something both mythical and universal. Having storyboarded its predecessor, Jennifer Yuh Nelson makes a triumphant directorial debut here as she makes an engaging action piece with moments of slapstick to please the children, but adults won’t feel left out as they might have a teary moment (I know I did).
Although it is primarily digital, the animation occasionally changes into traditional hand-drawn when the story does flashbacks. This extends the artistry of the film as this type of animation is very Asian-influenced, thus you are in awe towards every image.
With DreamWorks Animation, the curse of their films is usually the star-studded voice casts which is a way of marketing these films and certainly having Jack Black’s name massively displayed on the posters of both Kung Fu Panda films has worried some. Although the voice of Po is pure Jack Black with his overexcited behaviour, it surprisingly doesn’t become a distraction as other voice actors get their chance to shine, such as Angelina Jolie’s Tigeress and Michelle Yeoh’s goat soothsayer.
Sadly, Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) who was the most interesting character in the first film is largely unseen in this one but pretty much has the funniest sequence very early on. However, the one character that gets all the interest is the villainous feathered Lord Shen, voiced by Gary Oldman who provides a flamboyant yet sinister vocal performance to a peacock which is a visually interesting figure with a balletic fighting style.
Following a decent child-pleasing predecessor with its one-gag title, Kung Fu Panda 2 expands the action with a more engaging plot, spectacular kung fu and moments that are very moving. If you’re wondering if I saw this in 2D or 3D, it was the former and I imagine seeing the latter would have made no difference.
DIRECTOR: JENNIFER YUH NELSON
STARS (VOICES): JACK, BLACK, GARY OLDMAN, ANGELINA JOLIE, DUSTIN HOFFMAN, MICHELLE YEOH
RUNTIME: 90 MINS