Dreamworks Animation and Pixar have been battling for first place in animated films for years now, trading blows and fighting for supremacy every year for box office supremacy and the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It looks like 2011 will provide a good throw-down as Kung Fu Panda 2 does a great job of holding up against the first and continuing a story that makes you genuinely interested in the plot changes and characters. This is especially considering that hype for Cars 2 is not very high, it’s being made because the first Cars brought in additional merchandising close to the $1 billion range.
Jack Black returns as Po, the Panda Bear who struggles to uphold his title of being the Dragon Warrior, particularly when a strangely familiar face shows up with a weapon that threatens the very existence of Kung Fu. Po comes to several moments where he has to figure out about his shadowed past or fulfill his role as the defender of the valley with the Furious Five, voiced by the returning Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, and David Cross.
The film works on several levels, it is familiar enough to the first while simultaneously moving the characters forward. The Furious Five still have to carry some weight for Po, who is learning; however, Po is getting more skilled in his approach to master Kung Fu. While he is the leader in the eyes of everyone else, Tigress (Jolie) has moved into the role of the unofficial leader. Conflict arises when she, and the others, look to Po to make crucial decisions and his inexperience and selfish goal to seek out his true past interfere.
It is always said that a hero is only as good as the villain trying to stop him. In the case of both Panda films, they have constructed excellent villains that go well beyond a simplistic black and white approach to good and evil. The new villain, Shen, a peacock aiming to reclaim an honor that was taken from him by his parents, is brilliantly animated and complimented by the voice acting of Gary Oldman. His presence as a villain is always welcome and it shows exactly why, he adds depth to the character and it proves most valuable in the film.
With a few new additions such as Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the returning voices of James Hong and Dustin Hoffman, Panda 2 is a great follow up that is essential to family entertainment. There are plenty of goofy characters for the kids, lessons for older children, and inside jokes for parents. With the tease of a third film, the series looks to be moving forward steadily through strong waters towards being one of the better animated franchises.