Movie review Monday: Kung Fu Panda 2 (3D)

As far as sequels go, Kung Fu Panda 2 definitely fits into the Satisfying category. It doesn’t quite have the charm of the original, but instead fills this void with a surprising amount of dark intensity. Think Season 3 of animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender for a more accurate sense of the tone. Very young children certainly won’t be traumatised by Kung Fu Panda 2, but as far as this year’s CGI-animated releases go, DreamWork’s latest is not quite as blunted and cutesy an entertainment option as Rio (my review here).

The plot for Kung Fu Panda 2 isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Dark hearted, dissatisfied peacock Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman), having discovered the violent potential of gun powder, is cast out by his parents and returns years later to Gongmeng City with a secret weapon that will make him the undisputed ruler of China, and the simultaneous killer of Kung Fu. It’s up to tubby panda Po (Jack Black) - the unlikely Dragon Warrior - and other martial arts masters that make up the Furious Five, to stop Shen. However, Po and Shen’s life paths are interlinked, and until Po works out the connection, he’ll be too distracted to defeat his greatest foe.

It certainly will help viewers if they’ve watched the original Kung Fu Panda, because the relationships and characters established in that film are not covered again here. This isn’t to say there isn’t a lot to appreciate about Kung Fu Panda 2, whether you’re coming to the series fresh or not.

There is an intricate beauty to the world design, and the film slips effortlessly into different animation styles for the flashback and backstory sequences. Then there’s the characterisation of Shen, who is a wonderful embodiment of elegant evil. Disregarding Oldman’s terrific vocal performance, the filmmakers fully exploit the beauty and grace of the peacock, giving its fan-like tail a (often literally) deadly edge.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Kung Fu Panda does a fantastic job integrating its celebrity voice cast with the characters. The two really suit each other without feeling like they are being forced together. So if you can’t stomach Jack Black in live-action films you’ll be pleased to know that Po still exists as a character in his own right. Out of interest, Michelle Yeoh, Dennis Haysbert and Jean-Claude Van Damme are some of the high profile names who join Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross and James Hong for Kung Fu Panda 2 - and it's Yeoh who makes the biggest impression out of the newcomers, earning the most laughs as a deliberately obtuse soothsayer.

There are a few gripes to be made about Kung Fu Panda 2. Despite his importance in the first film, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is largely relegated to the background this time around. And, apart from one moment, the filmmakers continually snuff short scenes with all the kung fu masters in collaborative action, denying their full potential for coolness.

This said, the film does feature a fantastic cross-city carriage chase, and “hardcore” Tigress (Angelina Jolie) receives a lot more screen time. Also, for all its action, and humour (yes, including at least one “silly” moment), Kung Fu Panda 2 does seize opportunities to tug at your heartstrings. Then again, perhaps I’m just getting soft when it comes to something as emotionally manipulative as a big eyed baby panda.

For lovers of lovingly made animation, comedy and kung fu epics, Kung Fu Panda delivers as an adventure in its own right. It’s definitely worth a viewing. Just don’t bother with a 3D screening though – the film is nothing memorable in that format.


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