In the last couple decades great progress has been made towards reversing one of the worst and most common misconceptions in Hollywood: that animation is only for kids. Moving away from overly simple storytelling and jokes only found funny by those who can count their age on one hand, screenwriters and directors in the animated world are no longer afraid of darker themes, meaningful stories and richer characters. This wonderful shift continues in Kung Fu Panda 2. Deepening the surprising maturity of its predecessor, the movie successfully takes story beats from classic kung fu stories and dials back on the humor without letting things get too dark and dramatic, creating a work that is both meditative and immensely entertaining.
Picking up where the first film left off, Po (Jack Black) has eased into his position as the Dragon Warrior, when the world of kung fu is threatened by the return of Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a villain who has built a weapon of mass destruction. What Po doesn’t know, however, is that Lord Shen holds the key to his history and the knowledge of who he really is. Working with the kung fu masters known as the Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen and Jackie Chan), Po is not only on a mission to save China, but on a journey of self-discovery.
The most impressive thing about Kung Fu Panda 2 is the way in which it takes adult themes – including fate, revenge and identity – and makes them accessible to a family audience without lessening their impact. Those still wondering how a goose (voiced by the wonderful James Hong) ended up being the dad of a panda will laugh during the father-son confrontation, but feel powerful emotions when flashbacks reveal where Po really came from. The film never pulls its punches and instead of allowing audiences question whether all of the material is appropriate for a family film (it is), they will instead admire its willingness to push boundaries.
Making the flashback sequences all the more impactful is the stunning animation. Contrasting scenes set in the present part of the narrative, director Jennifer Yuh – whose background is primarily as a storyboard artist and designer – has Po’s memories of his childhood play out in 2D animation that, by removing the soft, cuddly nature of CGI, raises the intensity to unanticipated levels. While this is a highlight, the entire film is quite beautiful. Action-filled moments, such as when the team is running up the side of a falling temple, operate on an epic scale. Also helping is the use of 3D, which, while unfortunately reducing the movie’s brightness, is used to otherwise wondrous effect. 3D accentuates settings and layers the characters in a way that doesn’t make them look like cardboard cutouts, but rather, like fully-formed beings.
What unfortunately doesn’t work nearly as effectively in Kung Fu Panda 2 is the comedy, which always feels like an afterthought. Writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger do such an excellent job with the structure, set pieces, character development, emotional resonance and maturity that when it comes time for jokes they feel phoned in. That’s not to say that the movie is completely humorless (in fact, there are some laugh-out-loud moments), but one definitely gets the sense that it has never been a priority.
Hollywood always sets out to target multiple demographics with its films, but making a one that appeals to both children and adults remains a challenge. There’s a thin line between going over a five-year-old’s head and insulting the intelligence of anybody over 20. Kung Fu Panda 2 not only finds this line but balances on it like a Zen master. In a summer filled with sequels, you’ll be hard pressed to find another as intense, entertaining and visually gratifying.
For in-depth analysis of Kung Fu Panda's 3D, read To 3D Or Not To 3D.