It’s not easy making a sequel to a critically and commercially successful animated film. Just ask the Pixar guys, who fretted for months trying to make Toy Story 2 as awesome as the first. The team at Dreamworks hit it out of the park with the first Kung Fu Panda, and hoped that audiences would again be enamored with the lovable Po and his supporting cast of martial arts experts. To an extent, they succeeded, but this film didn’t quite live up to the high standards set by the first adventure.
Kung Fu Panda 2 starts, like its predecessor, with a bit of exposition by way of storytelling. A heartless, cruel and irreverent crane named Shen (voiced by the always entertaining Gary Oldman) returns to China to ascend the throne, and the only ones standing in his way are Po and the Furious Five. Lord Shen, rather than fighting them himself, invents gunpowder and fireworks as a way to destroy Kung Fu in China and become emperor. A soothsayer proclaims that “a black and white warrior” will eventually destroy Shen and his army, so, in classic Shakespearean fashion, Shen murders all of the pandas in China. Or so he thinks. We are suddenly transported to the present, where Shen and his diabolical device take over the city and imprison any who stand in his way. Cue Po and co, who just like that (literally like 12 minutes into the film) are on their way to save the day.
If you look closely, you will notice that this film is really a drink mixed with equal parts Harry Potter and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, substituting a bumbling animated panda as the Potter stand-in, and Lord Shen as the Macbeth character. Lord Shen is told that he will become king and rule the country, but soon after will be defeated by a powerful warrior. In Macbeth, it was “none of woman born” that posed a threat, so Macbeth figured he was safe. In Panda 2, Shen believes he has killed all of the pandas in China and has nothing to worry about, and like Macbeth, sets off on a path towards his own demise.
Po, like Harry Potter, has a link to this evil warlord, who murdered his parents before the story begins. And like Po, Harry Potter is drawn time and again to seek out the murderous villain and bring peace to himself and the country. The film’s lack of originality, however, does not count against Panda 2, for most of the children attending the film will have little knowledge of either, and those that know Harry Potter might overlook the plagiarism for a great looking, and funny, film.
Gone from 2 is Oogway, the wise and surprisingly funny turtle who leads the Furious Five and their teacher Shifu in the first Panda. He didn’t take all of the humor with him, and in fact left a good helping of comedy noodle soup for the elite warriors of Seal Six. I mean, the Furious Five. More than once I found myself pleasantly surprised at the clever dialogue and comedic timing of Po and his gang, something rare in non-Pixar fare. The narrative structure and arc of 2 were not, however, as well developed as the first film, and thrust the main storyline into the forefront too early and for too long. The film is pretty straightforward and the audience isn’t left to fill in much, but as a movement to a more child-friendly viewing experience, it works. The basic formula is brief exposition, explanation of main characters, main plot line, end. This may work in the film’s favor; although the running time is nearly identical, 2 moves along at a much more brisk pace than the first. This should please anyone with a short attention span or, you know, kids. Knowing your audience is half the battle, half that Dreamworks is more than conscious of.
To their credit, Dreamworks has shown the ability to make glorious-looking 3D. The winding city streets and dense growth of rural China come alive with stunning depth, and the clarity and precision of the backdrops make this film special. It seems like just yesterday I toured Dreamworks, taking in an early sequence from the first Panda film (it was 2007), and the incredible effort that goes into a project like this is readily apparent. Thousands of man hours go into animating, coloring, and positioning the characters to make them appear lifelike, and although the details we have come to expect from Pixar (wet fur, the caress of a slight breeze) are absent, the film’s color palette and set design are subtle and effective. Although I cannot put this in the “must see it in theaters” category purely on the strength of the story, the stunning visuals on the big screen make 3D more necessity than luxury.
If you are looking for simple, straightforward, child-friendly fare, you could do a lot worse than this film. I found myself surprised by the strength of the first film, and wasn’t disappointed by the sequel. It lacked a certain je ne sais quoi; perhaps this was the fault of the endeavor itself (making a sequel at all). Some franchises should be left well enough alone, but Dreamworks felt these characters were strong enough to demand a sequel. Panda 2 did not fire on all cylinders, but fans of the first won’t feel cheated, and newcomers to the franchise (which may continue to a third film) will find the spectacle worth the price of admission.
Overall Score: 7.65 – Good. (7s are good, but not great. These films often have a stereotypical plot or are great movies that have a few minor flaws. Fans of this movie’s genre might love it, but others will still enjoy seeing it in theaters.)