Kung Fu Panda 2 had a hell of a lot to live up to, in my opinion. To me, the first Kung Fu Panda was one of the greatest animated films of all time. It had great art, great voice acting, it was naturally funny, filled with great action sequences and delivered the requisite kids movie message without being ham-fisted about it. Boom. So could the sequel live up to that? The bar was pretty high.
The answer is… yes and no. But it earned my respect in a big way.
You see, Kung Fu Panda was essentially a fish out of water comedy. “Look! It’s a Kung Fu temple, but the Panda’s fat and clumsy! Thats so funny!” KFP2 can’t play that card. They can’t tell a bunch of fat Kung Fu jokes. Po is the Dragon Warrior now, he should be getting more respect. They can’t chock the movie full of Kung Fu newbie getting his ass kicked by Masters jokes. Po defeated Tai Lung singlehandedly. Obviously he knows something about Kung Fu. And they can’t dwell on Po driving Master Shifu crazy… Ok, well, he still drives Master Shifu crazy a little.
To the creators credit, they dont try. Sure, there’s a few fat jokes here and there, but on the whole, they allow the characters – especially the main character – grow along the path that seems the most natural. In turn, they get a sequel that really feels like a step forward from the original, like you’re watching the second part of something, as opposed to a carbon copy of the first movie. These isn’t the same group of characters from the first movie, they’re more mature.
Unfortunately, the movie is too. There’s far less humor, and that’s too bad. Because the balance of humor and action was one of the things that made the first film so great. This one is far more serious. More action oriented. Darker (literally and figuratively. There’s a few stretches where the color palette is just plain DARK). The background quest for Po to understand his parentage is deep and serious, as well. And finally, the stakes are higher. While Tai Lung was a menace, no doubt (and a great villain, I’m a big Tai Lung fan), you didnt get the sense that the threat they were facing was a global threat the way you do here. The Peacock “Shen” (voiced by Gary Oldman) has invented the cannon, and intends to use the new weapon to bring China under his control. Where Tai Lung was badass and selfish, you get the feeling that Shen is just… Evil.
I certainly dont want to bash the movie too much. I enjoyed it a lot. I love these characters, the 3D was excellent, and the action was pretty cool. As part of a trilogy, this will make a great chapter. It just wasn’t able to rise to the level of it’s incredible predecessor and mix Action, Humor and Heart as skillfully as that one did. But when your predecessor is as good a movie as the first Kung Fu Panda, that shouldnt be too much of a crime.