Film Review: Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Hey, what happened last week? I got really sick around Tuesday afternoon. It must have been from that convention where they corralled us like cattle into that tiny vendor room. So sorry. I was sleeping more than I was awake. Kung Fu Panda 2 is a very different film from the original. It still follows the story of Po, an oversized panda recently named the dragon warrior, as he tries to defend his land from the darker side of Kung Fu. All of the major characters have returned, including the Furious Five, Master Shifu, and Po's goose father Mr. Ping. The animation is in the same style and the background characters are the same bunnies and pigs that filled the screen in the first.

So what's the difference? Kung Fu Panda 2 is an action movie. It is all about the fights and the battle between good (Po and his compatriots) and evil. The evil comes in the form of a twisted peacock named Lord Shen. Shen was banished from his kingdom by his parents (the king and queen) for ensuring a soothsayer's prophecy about his demise could never come true. He developed a weapon that harnessed the beautiful power of fireworks to destroy Kung Fu. Now that he has assembled an army of wolves to do his bidding, he is determined to take over all of China and the rest of the world.

Director Jennifer Yuh, the woman who was in charge of all the Kung Fu and action sequences in the first film, does a great job integrating large elaborate battles with character development and storytelling. One of the major plot devices in the film is actually built around an elaborate and highly difficult concentration technique. Po's favorite Furious Five warrior, Tigress, gets some much needed character development through her mastery of Kung Fu in training Po. All of the Furious Five now take on distinctive style that makes them more rounded characters. And there is nothing generic about what Lord Shen does in battle. He's swift, conniving, and brutal. You can tell the film is directed by someone with an eye for action without even knowing how she got that experience. It's like the best of the old-styled Martial Arts films combined with modern animation.

That is not to say the film doesn't have its flaws. It does. The big problem with Kung Fu Panda 2 is the structure of the screenplay. The film actually opens with a beautifully animated shadow-sequence of Lord Shen's back-story and plan to destroy the world. The problem is it tells the entire narrative in three minutes. You don't see all the fight sequences, but you know exactly what's going to happen. The film then tries to rebuild mystery by not showing exactly what Shen's weapon does in the main animation style. The problem is they already showed Shen's weapon in the opening sequence. They showed the exact move Po uses to defeat him. They even showed what happened to Po's family, the source of internal conflict for Po the entire film. It's a bad choice that mars an otherwise solid screenplay. Had the scene been used later in the film, it would have been a much stronger use of storytelling.

I initially thought that broadening the focus of the film to split time between Po and Shen was a bad decision. I'm no longer sure of that. Shen and Po are used as foils to each other, as only one character appears fully developed in their combined scenes. Sometimes it's Shen; other times, Po. It's a pretty effective technique that I've grown to like a lot more. Would I have liked a bit more focus on Po earlier in the film to reestablish his character for the audience? Yes. But does not opening and sticking with Po really hurt the clarity of the film? No.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is one of the better action films I've seen in a long time. There are some very inventive chase sequences and visual effects sequences that could only be accomplished in animation. Despite the medium, the film shows a surprising level of maturity in tackling questions of identity and fate without alienating a younger audience. There's plenty to laugh and cheer it, even if a lot of the film will make you think.

Rating: 7/10

Thoughts? Love to hear them.