2011 // USA // Jennifer Yuh Nelson // May 30, 2011 // Theatrical Print (AMC Esquire)
I admired Kung Fu Panda quite a bit when it burst onto the scene in 2008, perhaps more than its screwball cartoon sensibilities or wearisome believe-in-yourself message warranted. Bear in mind, please, that it featured a portly panda bear in little shorts. I'm not made of stone, people. Beyond its visceral appeal, the film served as encouraging proof that Dreamworks could, in fact, produce a charming, frothy work of feature animation without resorting to atonal pop culture references, repugnant musical numbers, or scatological humor.
This hopeful sign was buttressed by an even better animated feature from Dreamworks last year, How to Train Your Dragon, a vanishingly rare example of a film that utilized 3D to excellent, enriching effect. However, in the past three years, the studio has also given us Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Monsters vs. Aliens, and Shrek Forever After, films which I'm quite comfortable dismissing as rubbish, based solely on the good judgment of trusted critics and the assurances of a wife who attends a lot kiddie flicks. Also: Fuck you, Dreamworks, for forcing me to type that execrable title, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.
Whatever enthusiasm I had going into Kung Fu Panda 2 was therefore tempered by wariness about whether the film would preserve the funny, frisky, wholesome qualities of its predecessor, or resign itself to flickering in and out existence as an opening weekend cash-grab. Happily, first-time director Jennifer Yuh Nelson and returning scripters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger are keenly aware of original film's strengths. They ably pull off a tricky balancing act: maintaining a sense of stylistic and tonal continuity with Kung Fu Panda, while refraining from ratcheting the successful formula up to the point of shrillness.
The humor is still an appealing blend of slapstick and gently subversive deadpan gags that routinely deflate the film's most solemn moments. The design and the martial arts action are just as spectacular as in the previous outing. (Seriously, can we strap down some contemporary live-action directors and show them these movies? Maybe they'll learn how to make action sequences engaging and coherent again.) Even more admirably, the filmmakers actually manage to present a honest-to-goodness sequel. The film doesn't push the reset button on the events of its predecessor, but instead advances and deepens the ongoing story, mainly by exploring the mystery of Po's origins.
Not everything works. The peacock villain, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) is menacing enough, but the film's odd fascination with his psychology bumps up against the crudity of his Take Over the World scheme. The story gets a bit wooly in places, and the Taoism-for-Tots gestures are a little half-baked, even if they are a welcome change of pace from the usual Western fairy tale tropes. Still, it's hard to find fault with a sequel that so successfully fulfills its own promise. Marvelously satisfying cartoon fun.