When it comes to sequels, I think it’s usually fair to assume that while live-action films tend to suffer, it’s the world of computer-animation where they thrive. Hand drawn animation sequels on the other hand generally get thrown to the shelves of direct-to-video-land where they rightfully belong. Just thinking about how many adventures they’ve squeezed out of Little Foot & Co. is beyond comprehension. However, there’s also now four Shrek flicks and a fourth Ice Age headed our way in 2012. Now with Kung Fu Panda 2, it looks like DreamWorks has realized (as they did in Shrek 2) that Pixar isn’t the only one who can make a successful sequel.
The first rule to making a great sequel is about carrying on the story while also bringing forth deeper characterization. It also doesn’t hurt to aim to outdo the original but sometimes that results more in cinematic travesty than anything. Thankfully, director Jennifer Yuh takes over the reigns and shows that she’s more than up to the task of following up the fantastic original. Surprisingly, returning screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, also have brought themselves up to the sequel challenge. I’m sure it also didn’t hurt when DreamWorks decided to bring in Charlie Kaufman and Guillermo del Toro to do some script polishing (with del Toro added as an executive producer). While the film stays true to its roots through Aibel and Berger, Kaufman and del Toro’s fingerprints are all over this as well.
In Kung Fu Panda 2, we catch up with Po (voiced by Jack Black), Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) and the Furious Five: Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan), Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu), Mantis (voiced by Seth Rogen), and Crane (voiced by David Cross), in the Valley of Peace. But before the new plot is set into motion we get a gorgeously shadow play-animated prologue involving the creation of fireworks amongst Lord Shen’s (voiced by Gary Oldman) peacocks. Shen goes on a rampage wiping out the panda civilization and thus the Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) determines a prophecy that Shen will be brought down by a black and white warrior and then Shen is banished from his parents’ kingdom.
Shen now sets out to develop a weapon so powerful it can stop kung fu forever and Shifu sends out Po and the Furious Five to stop a band of wolves who are stealing all the metal from the Valley of Peace. Turns out that Shen has figured out how to use black powder and is now producing canons aiming for world domination. Meanwhile, every time Po gets a flash of a certain symbol he becomes victim to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and starts having flashbacks. To anyone who’s ever seen a movie before it should be obvious as to what’s going on here as the flashbacks pertain to classically animated sequences involving Po as a baby and two characters that just may be his true parents. Yes, Po is adopted, as Mr. Ping (James Hong) tearfully finally explains to Po in a hilarious flashback sequence all his own. Now, Po must stop Shen and find inner peace, along with who he really is, before the Valley is destroyed and eventually, the world!
One of the things that the filmmakers immediately get right (as they did in the first one) is in making Kung Fu Panda 2 first and foremost, a true kung fu film. The fight sequences here are true stand outs and bare multiple viewings. They are some of the best choreographed and beautifully animated action sequences outside of a Yuen Woo Ping live-action film. And the 3-D is finally used to bring out all the stops and looks surprisingly pretty fantastic. I’m still holding on to the belief that the only films that benefit at all from the use of a third dimension are computer animated films, but then it also gets wasted on the likes of such things as Hoodwinked Too. The second in keeping with the long standard tradition that all animated family films be tear jerking comedies.
And finally, that they still manage to keep things from getting too dark as to lose their target audience. Bear in mind that as was the original, this is rated PG for sequences of martial arts action and mild violence. Characters get hurt and bad guys can die; even if hilariously in a few instances. But in that this is animated, the proceedings never become too overbearing that it would ever frighten the younger audience. Peril is a most welcome return to the realm of family films as it used to be a major staple and has gotten lost as we proceed with each generation of filmgoers becoming even more sheltered pansies than the last.
Just when I thought Rango had this year’s Best Animated Feature all wrapped up, now here comes something even bigger and better. While Rango is still undoubtedly one of the best films of the year so far, it looks like Memorial weekend 2011 sets things back on track after the dismal hiccup that was last week’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Here’s hoping that audiences will eat up another helping of Po and crew as so far this is the most deserving out of this year’s summer movies. Three years ago, the original Kung Fu Panda went on to gross $631 million worldwide ($215 mil domestically) and honestly, 2 deserves to make twice that much.
Photos courtesy DreamWorks Animation