What do Batman Begins, Star Trek and Kung Fu Panda 2 have in common? They are all origin stories. The story of the Kung Fu pPanda 2 is about the origins of the Po and where he comes from. The main story is about how a new weapon threatens to destroy kung-fu once and for all, now it’s up to our heroes to save the day whilst Po comes to grips with his inner peace to become a true kung fu master. There are plenty of themes that are common in the martial arts genre here, just like the original this film was developed by people with a massive love for that which they are paying homage to.
The story takes some directions that would be clichéd in a Hong Kong action cinema, but in animated kids film this is much less true. Some brave decisions were made in the writing process, yet on the other hand everything is bigger, better, brighter than the original film. It is also a darker film too. The darkness comes from some of the themes touched upon by the villainy of the antagonist. Shen is the villain this time and thanks to a prophecy decreed by a soothsayer he has done everything in his power to avoid this fate. This brings up themes of genocide and abandonment. Even for films targeted towards adults, this is a dark, so for a child’s film this is as thematically troubling as that scene in Toy Story 3. That comparison doesn’t only stand up on a thematic level it also works on an emotional one with themes of abandonment, the film moves in some emotionally wrought directions.
If any film affects you in such a way, it is a given then that the characters are well-developed and performed. As much as it pains me to say so, that is definitely the case, whether it is in the central role from Jack Black or some of the smaller roles. Jack Black’s role demands him to be both the peter pan of rock, spouting off some of the films more poster friendly lines as well as providing the pathos behind Po’s past. The film also demands more from the other actors. All of the furious five have a much more fleshed out role sans Crane who had a much more minor role. The specific feature of the script that made me happiest was the much improved characterization of Monkey (Jackie Chan). In the first film he had so few lines that I actually didn’t realise it was him, thankfully it has been resolved in this film with him playing one of the central comic drives on many occasions.
The rest of the cast is inspired. The villain this time around is voiced by Gary Oldman, who puts just as much effort into his performance as Shen as he has done with all his roles. It’s almost like us Brits have a history of playing brilliant cinematic villains. As good as he, the inspired casting presents itself through two of the lesser roles in the Soothsayer and Master Croc. These roles speak volumes for depth of knowledge and love that the films creators have for the genre, these voices belong to Hong Kong action cinema mainstay, Michelle Yeoh, and the muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme.
There has been a lot of love and attention paid to every level of this film and those which meet you first are the fight sequences and the animation. Even before the fight sequences there is plenty of brilliant psychical comedy. If you subtract the sedate and boring first fight in the film the rest of the sequences took the scale and concept of the climactic fight with Tai Lung from the original and turned it up to eleven. There are some brilliantly sequences with standouts such as a chase scene taking place across a beautifully recreated Chinese city and a visually awe-inspiring sequence taking place along the side of a falling building. It’s all helped by being beautifully animated in all the styles it adopts, admittedly it’s hard for a computer animated film to really stand out, but when the film adopts Disney style animation and a traditional Chinese art direction you really do just have to stop and take it all in.
As brilliant as the film is there has to be a point where the film falls on its face, and the only place where I struggled with the film was the voice acting in the fight scenes. Shouting ‘HI-YAH’, took me completely out of experience, but as far as I could tell the only person who was doing this bad enough to be noticed was David Cross. The flaws might be thin on the ground but the most impressive thing about this film is that it takes an already brilliant film and improves everything. If DreamWorks continue to make films of such a high quality they might stop being a point of comparison used to illustrate just how good Pixar are at what they do.