“Kung Fu Panda” has been one of the DVDs in heavy rotation with my daughter on weekends. It has a good message for kids, good storytelling and some great martial arts set pieces—what more could you want? “Kung Fu Panda 2” builds on all of that and goes further with character development, storytelling, action and design. And getting to see it in 3D at the Capitol Theater was a trip!
“Kung Fu Panda 2” starts off almost where the first movie left off (actually it starts off right about where the DVD “Secrets of the Furious Five” left off, but no need to quibble). Po (Jack Black) and the Furious Five remain defenders of the Valley of Peace and heed the call when a pack of wolf warriors raid the villagers for all the metal they can find. During the fight, Po has a flashback to his mother and lets the wolf pack escape empty handed. The wolves return to their leader Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock whose plot to take over all of China is key to understanding Po’s past. Shen was foretold by a soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) that if he continues on his path to use gunpowder—created by peacocks—for evil purposes, he will be defeated “by a warrior of black and white.” This led to Shen killing all the giant pandas he could find, including Po’s mother, which led to Po being adopted by Peng (James Hong) his noodle making goose father. Now Po and the Five must stop Shen and his new inventions that can stop kung fu. Which animal will achieve their destiny and inner peace is the backbone of the movie.
What struck me about the movie first was the way they used the characters this time around. While both movies belong to Po, while Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) was the major secondary character in the first “Kung Fu Panda,” he now takes a backseat to let Tigress (Angelina Jolie) get more time in this movie. It’s a very smart choice since it does show Po has progressed in his teachings while allowing to go deeper into another character of the team and their relationship, which has also changed from the first movie. Plus it gets into a classic soft style v. hard style kung fu debate but without disparaging any one style. Usually one style beats the other is a deadly showdown of skills; here soft style is favored but only because the hero is best suited for soft style and uses it to its potential. Another very smart story style choice.
The storytelling is very sophisticated this time around. It starts off as one of a “legend tells a tale of…” type yarn, moves right into present day and continues on with flashbacks interspersed throughout. That some of the flashbacks look like hand drawn 2D animation is a perfect touch. Writers Johnathan Aibel and Glen Berger (who also produced), with co-story by Robert Koo elaborate on what came before it, shape it with precision and care, and even give an set up for a possible third movie that continues on what happened in this one without interfering with the conclusion of it.
The scope and tapestry is much bigger this time as well. The team ventures out to Shen’s stronghold in Gongmen city. The background details are gorgeous from the sunset to the tiny lanterns in widows at a distance, everything well rendered. The battles aren’t just individual ones but Po and the Five taking on sometimes huge armies of wolves. The animators rise to the script challenge and match the painstaking detail frame by frame. In 3D, it’s a little overwhelming and yeah you do kind of get lost in the fights, which is probably intentional so you would have to view it multiple times to catch everything in it. Still it is all done supremely well and the visual feast rises to the level of the storytelling.
Ultimately “Kung Fu Panda 2’s” message that one must confront the past in order to overcome them and find peace resonates, but isn’t smacked over the head as hard as it could have been—they let the martial arts action do that. The message of the subplot of Po’s adoption is nicely handled and I think it’s a very positive message for adoptees and adoptive parents alike. It’s one the kids can watch that the parents won’t tire of. Much like the first one, what more could you want from a summer animated movie?