Review: KUNG FU PANDA 2 A Superior, Kid-Focused Sequel

rating: 4

Three years ago thanks to Dreamworks and Jack Black, the world was introduced to one of the best animal animation film since Pixar established the animation watershed moment with Toy Story in 1995. The effortless charm of that film, combined with Black's own unique charisma, and an exceptional wider cast determined that the film was a massive success, and somewhat inevitably this week sees the British release of the follow-up. So, is Kung Fu Panda 2 no more than a cynical cash-in attempt by the studio? Or is it a worthy stand-alone on its own merits? The good news is that the sequel works well off the foundation laid by the first film: Dreamworks have clearly recognised the blue-print for success in the better aspects of the first, and have taken the opportunity of the sequel to strip away from of the more superfluous elements and concentrate on what worked. Generally speaking, that means more Po, and more opportunity for Jack Black to play the loveable fool. Say what you like about Black's recent output of work (and I frequently do), Po is both the perfect match and the perfect antidote to his style of acting. Recently, he has seemed content to play the funny, slightly bumbling fat guy shtick to death, and is in severe danger of throwing away his star quality far quicker than the potential shown in his gentler, more engaging performances suggested, but with the veil of animation, Black is thankfully limited in the routine, as he can't mug around and steal focus with his physical antics. The format also encourages some strong vocal work from him, focusing his emotional energy into the performance and making Po warm, engaging and sympathetic. Sadly, the shift in focus comes at a bit of a cost for other aspects of the film: firstly, and most noticeably the story-line is okay, but it just doesn't pack the awesome punch that the first one, and the quest to become the Dragon Warrior had. After all, we have already met Po, and followed him finding his calling, and the way that first narrative was presented suggested a finality to that resolution that the extension into a sequel seems somewhat counter to. So here, we have Po finding out who he was, in order to reinforce who he is, and to find Inner Peace in order to address that biggest threat that Kung Fu has ever seen, in the shape of an Industrial Revolution allegory-friendly Lord Shen (Gary Oldman on top vocal form). The script is still strong, with some chuckles to be had, but the impetus is so much on action (which will definitely appeal to the kids in the audience) and narrative swiftness that some characters fade into the background rather unfairly. Jackie Chan is probably pretty pissed right now, considering how cast aside his character is, but he isn't the only one: almost all of the Furious Five are relegated to bit-parts in comparison to Po and Shen. Crucially, despite the comparative weaknesses, the visuals are stunning: the animation itself is brilliant, and the designs of both characters and particularly backgrounds are hugely impressive. There is certainly no slouch here to the detriment of the visuals as there was markedly in the ill-advised Open Season sequels, that's for certain. Unlike some other animations (it's hard not to mention Pixar here), Kung Fu Panda 2 never concerns itself with the adult audience members, and makes sure it fully addresses the needs of its primary audience before anything else. So the story is wholly engaging, the animation vibrant and absorbing and the script full of funny moments for kids, ticking every box for younger audience members. And let's be honest, if we are judging how good a film about a kung fu Panda on how it is received by adults, then maybe we're all missing the point. The fact that it is near-perfect fare for kids should instead be lauded. The very end was a bit tiresome, and may well turn out to devalue Po's story in the long-run: there is clearly a distinct possibility of a third film (it has definitely been set up) and given what we see right at the end of this second film, its pretty simple to work out where the story arc is going to go next. If there isn't a proper love interest for Po in the next film, I'll eat my hat. Overall, Kung Fu Panda is a great animation experience, aimed squarely at kids and perfectly suited to that audience, while there is definitely enough to admire for adults, without necessarily completely engaging them.
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