The first Kung Fu Panda was a fun send-up of Hong Kong kung fu films, with sharp but likeable humour and an unlikely cast of animals that made for a lot of visual gags.
The second manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of comedy sequels, while not being quite striking or memorable enough to really be essential viewing. It was, however, a very entertaining and compelling animation and full of great ideas, sight gags and likeable, interesting characters.
The first problem to overcome was the fact that the identifiable character from the first film, the big fat lazy panda who was pretty hopeless at everything, ended the story as a capable warrior and respected kung fu artist. Fortunately, the right balance is struck between him not having lost his skills and him being unfit and clumsy.
A new threat has arisen, and in typical kung fu fashion, it’s gunpowder vs hand-to-hand combat. A peacock prince (gleefully played by Gary Oldman hamming it up) has been banished for responding to a prophecy that he will be defeated by a black-and-white warrior by slaughtering all the pandas in China. Now he has his own army and a new, unstoppable weapon, and it will fall to the Dragon Warrior and his partners to stop him – but fortunately, somehow the peacock prince doesn’t know about the famous Dragon Warrior being a panda. He must be stopped before he takes his weapon to sea, and of course, during the conflict, Po will end up finding out what happened to his parents and how he came to be the only one of his kind in his village, perhaps in all of China.
Normally I object to stories driven by prophecies, which tend to be a lazy excuse for character motivation, but since the majority of the humour of Kung Fu Panda derives from a fresh and irreverent take on old clichés, that doesn’t apply here. The whole concept revolves around retelling a familiar story in a unique and silly way, not just with animals but with a knowing, modern angle delivered by the cynical yet also hapless main character. And this is what it does well – very well. With the fantastic animation and the inventive action scenes, and some nice changes in media, simulated in CG – shadow puppets and cel-style flash animation. Kung Fu Panda 2 is visually at the top of its game, Dreamworks now able to match Pixar with every picture. However, they still haven’t quite learned the lesson made How To Train Your Dragon so much more resonant than the likes of Shrek, and puts Pixar on the top of their game: everyman characters who can be identified with easily - which Po is not, being a clownish friend figure, but not a point of immediate contact. Two things could have improved Kung Fu Panda 2: more emotional clout and a stronger, more compelling story. But these are difficult things to build on the story of the first film, as well as keeping things as a light-hearted comedy.
It is worth remembering that this is the comedy sequel to a comedy film. Not every film has to be full of heart and warmth to work – and this one after all delivers more kicking of butt than the average.