For some reason I underestimate the Kung Fu Panda franchise, Jack Black voicing a panda makes me judge unfairly that the film is just an animated parody of old kung fu movies. The first film proved me wrong with that, while it did have its comedy, it honoured the ideas of kung fu and delivered a story worthy of that genre. Kung Fu Panda 2 is nothing but advancement in this fantastic franchise. This film is surprising in how well it blends action with comedy, executes real dramatic threat and delivers an emotionally powerful story.
The film continues from its predecessor with ease, beginning with a fantastic prologue of the villain’s origins, motivations and connection to Po the Panda. From there you’re reintroduced to the world, Po is accepted as a Kung Fu warrior by both Master Shifu and his fellow kung fu warriors: Tigress, Crane, Monkey, Viper and Mantis. While the first film mainly focused on the relationship between master and student with Po and Shifu, this story takes a greater focus on warriors working together. Seeing all six of these animals fight together in various combinations throughout the film, working as a team is greatly satisfying. There is great visual and vocal chemistry with Po and the Furious Five, to have those dynamics be the fore front in the story helps Kung Fu Panda 2 stand separate as its own film and not just a sequel.
The film’s plot is about a journey of self discovery, finding one’s self and inner peace. Po and his companions are needed to go on a mission to save China and kung fu and as it unfolds Po learns of his past. Po, who was raised by a goose finally accepts he was adopted and that his origins are unknown to him. As the story unfolds, its flashbacks told in very creative animation styles resembling Chinese art, we slowly gather pieces of what happened to Po when he was a baby. We as the audience can piece together very quickly what happened but watching Po come to the realisations of his past tied into the theme of finding one’s inner peace creates a poignant sequence for the character. Po’s personality hasn’t changed from the first film, there are still fat jokes, a clumsiness to his actions but the delivery of his journey in the film is emotionally satisfying.
With its compelling dramatic themes it doesn’t mean that this film doesn’t excel and its comedy and action. The fight scenes in the film are incredible, even though its animation and the possibilities are endless, the physicality to every fighter creates a fluid and engaging scene. There are so many things happening throughout these set pieces, so many enemies, various heroes of different sizes and abilities yet the direction of every last moment is a true spectacle. The use of comedy in the film works for the most part, many of them are great, play to audience expectation and gives a different punchline . However some jokes can undercut the dramatic tension the film is trying to build especially between scenes with Po and the villain Lord Shen.
I’ve mentioned the villain here and there wanting to focus on the other great pieces to this film before I got to its crown jewel. Lord Shen is the villain of Kung Fu Panda 2 and he is one the best antagonists I have seen in a film in a long time. The menacing peacock ruler of Gongmen City is a creation of excellence, a combination of incredible dialogue, beautiful animation and an unbelievable performance from Gary Oldman. All those elements create a character who elevates this film with every scene he is in, the nuance Oldman brings to his speech is captivating. Everything about Lord Shen is executed perfectly: his motivations as the film’s main adversary are incredible, any other film I may have written off, I find prophecies a very aggravating piece of storytelling but this film really makes it work. Oldman’s delivery of Shen’s emotions gets me invested completely in his story, the quieter reflections of the character and his past is where he really shines, when he talks of his parents and his ambition for the future. His villainy elevates the film because he is not an enemy who represents evil kung fu, Shen is an accomplished fighter but he the represents the future, he represents the industrialisation of war. His power does not come from inner peace but from the unstoppable fire power of his armada of cannons which destroy all in their path.
Lord Shen is the reason Kung Fu Panda 2 is must see viewing, this character must be witnessed. He’s so good there are times when the film doesn’t live up to the character’s true potential, Shen’s story in the film is fantastic but you are left wanting so much more. Another problem that arises from Shen’s brilliance is that Po himself at times didn’t come off as a worthy adversary to him, the two characters are connected by destiny but it was Oldman’s performance as Shen that had me so invested in the film not Jack Black’s. These issues come from a place where I just believed the film could have gone even further in its storytelling with the two characters.
Kung Fu Panda 2 is one of the sequels where it stands apart as its own great film. Its differences from the original only serve to the strengthen the franchise and showcase the potential of its upcoming sequel. Great action mixed with comedy and drama all in deep respect to Chinese culture with fantastic performances from the whole cast for an engaging story.