Kung Fu Panda 2

US (2011) Dir. Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Having finally graduated from his training and proven himself worth of becoming a Dragon Warrior, the panda named Po and his fellow fighters the Furious Five – Monkey, Tigress, Crane, Mantis and Viper – find themselves playing the role of protectors to Gongmen City after villainous peacock Lord Shen plans to wipe out kung fu with his new weapon, a fireworks cannon.

This inevitable sequel to the 2008 hit was originally to be subtitled Pandamoneum which was later changed to The Kaboom of Doom before producers settled on the more generic and creatively bereft title you see above. Thankfully the film is better than the title, packed full of action and gentle humour all delivered in superb looking CGI animation.

To add some additional depth to the story, the emotional centre is provided by a look into Po’s past. Through flashbacks – rendered, in a neat touch, in old fashioned cell drawn animation – Po is haunted by brief visions of his late parents, causing him to question whether he is the real son of the goose he has been calling father for all these years. The story behind their deaths lead back to Shen’s original campaign for domination when he was told by a Soothsayer that one day a black and white warrior would defeat him. Shen forms an army to wipe out the panda population to prevent this from happening, with Po’s parents sending their son away to safety when he Shen’s attack reaches them.

With Po now being a fully fledged fighter there is little training for him to undergo, which was the source of most of the comedy in the first film, but all good warriors are still learning and the little trick that Po needs to master is Inner Peace at the behest of Master Shifu. In the grand tradition of martial arts stories this hard to achieve skill will prove to be a powerful addition to his arsenal when he needs it the most. This isn’t a spoiler as much as it is stating the bleeding obvious, this particular plot device being a staple of the martial arts genre, albeit an effective one to give us the feel good conclusion this family fare deserves.

However despite being aimed primarily at younger viewers this sequel takes a risk with the story by taking down a darker path than its predecessor, the retrospective carnage of Shen’s cold blooded attack on the panda community being a particularly grim image placed in the mind of the little ‘uns. Elsewhere many of the easy target gags such as Po’s weight are replaced by a more poignant subplot about family and fatherhood. Yes, the idea of a panda not aware that a goose is not his biological father is fertile ground for much comedy and ridicule but the writers do a good job of keeping it on a straight enough path, avoiding the temptation to wallow in cheap sentimentality, relying on a nice undercurrent of pathos instead. But don’t think this a morbid outing – this has just as many laughs as the first film.

On a more factual level, there has been careful observation made to the historical developments of China shown that adds a small level of credibility to the story. Gunpowder and fireworks were both a respective discovery and creation of the Chinese, incorporating them in the development of their weaponry. This gives Shen’s cannon some legitimacy and not appear to be the anachronism it may to be in a world otherwise steeped in the past as we know it (at least in the films).

Dreamworks have come a long way with their animation from the early days of playing second fiddle to Pixar to being challengers to their crown. Released in 3D, this film demonstrates that growth via the oriental designs of the buildings, landscapes and attire of ancient China which showcase the depth and attention of the artwork, to the fluidity of the animation. The fight scenes are often too quick for their own good, making the action hard to follow but the execution can’t be faulted. There are a couple of exhilarating chase scenes to behold that employ some fantastic camerawork to take the viewer deep into centre of the action of the aerial stunts via some impressively giddy inducing overhead shots.

The all star voice cast return for this second outing – Jack Black, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross  and in a limited role, Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu – which I hope is a joke by the writers as “shifu” is in fact the Chinese word for Master! Joining them for this adventure are Gary Oldman who is chilling as the evil Shen and the legendary Michelle Yeoh as the Soothsayer, whose form is some sort of yak or some member of the oxen family.

As sequels go Kung Fu Panda 2 is a fine follow up to the first film and fans of the original shouldn’t feel at all disappointed by this. If anything the sheer scope of action and the quality of the animation is likely to hold this film in higher esteem than its parent for many. A lot of fun is to be had here. Hiiiiya!