If you had told me before today that the sequel to the Dreamworks film Kung Fu Panda would become one of the best animated films in a long time, I would have laughed in your face.
I grew up with Disney’s renaissance musicals; Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas, and Aladdin are all movies I remember loving. This being true I was always just a bit too old for the Dreamworks films. When Shrek came out I remember my 6 year old self being very annoyed with not only the characters (I got so angry every time Donkey tried to be funny) but with the overall anti-Disney-ness of it all. I could see the blatant insults directed at my childhood obsession, even at such a young age. Frankly, it pissed me off.
This early scarring has carried into nearly every Dreamworks film until recently, making it obvious why I was skeptical of Kung Fu Panda 2. Being a Dis-geek also taught me to be VERY weary of sequels. And CG.
However, this is very probably not only one of the best sequels ever made, but one of the best animated films ever.
The original Kung Fu Panda was impressive in that it gave a great representation of the spiritual side of Kung Fu while still being a good Dreamworks kids film. This sequel took it further.
Let’s start with all of the flaws I noticed throughout the film. At one point the crane hurts its wing badly enough that it can’t fly. A few minutes later it seems to be completely healed as Crane flies and fights without issue. That’s it.
On to the good points. The animation is beautiful. The main style is so detailed and flowing. Just look at the villain. His movement changes based on how he feels and what he does, going from gorgeous fight choreography to comic relief reactions on a dime. When he speaks the feathers on his neck gently move, like a person’s skin does.
Speaking of the villain, he is great. His design is beautiful, from the white and red color pallet to the way his robe sits on his tale. I love how he is a peacock. Not only does it give him a fantastic fighting style, but it makes sense when he can’t only rely on his kung fu and has to turn to weaponry. It’s also great how he isn’t quite sure what his own motivations are, giving him a wonderfully dynamic personality.
There is a short scene during the climax where he orders his main underling to fire upon our heroes, even though it would mean killing his own men. When this small character refuses to do so, he is killed instantly and never mentioned again. I loved this scene. It’s quick enough that a child wouldn’t even notice it (which is why I don’t think it’s a spoiler), but it just seemed so powerful to me to see this man (who until that point was mostly comic relief) stand up to his commander only to be brushed aside. He didn’t save the day or win the battle. Hell, he didn’t even buy the heroes any time. He just spoke his mind even though he knew he would be killed. There is just something so much more noble in that death than in going down fighting.
There are so many subtle things like that throughout the entire film. From symbols which you actually have to look for to small visual comedy. There is no Donkey character who spouts one-liners and catch phrases. Some of the jokes are so small that they are able to be included in the most serious scenes with out taking away any of the emotion or tension, but could give a good laugh to anyone who needed it. None of the morals or themes were hammered into you either. Most of them are only directly brought up in one or two scenes, leaving you to see the imagery and symbolism which communicated them further.
Did I mention the choreography? Everything about the movement is amazing. From classic kung fu sweeping cameras to the way the individual characters walk. The anthropomorphic cast gives the animators so many ways to experiment with movement, especially in kung fu scenes. An early fight shows the six warriors defending a village against badgers. The warriors work so well off each other, with Po shouting “Tigress! Crane! Mantis! Monkey!” just as a conductor cues instruments to come in. The fluid movement is so simple that it becomes hard to tell what is happening until the action halts on account of a blind mandolin player who made me think of Hero, my personal favorite kung fu movie. The rest of the battle is focused around this character, again giving anyone who needed it a quick laugh.
That is NOT a wolf. It is a badger.
While I won’t give away the ending, I will say that is sort of counteracts a lot of the story’s points, so I hope they clear that up in number 3. The minor characters are a tad weak as well, but I personally didn’t mind because there is A LOT going on with Po. Another thing that I noticed is because the themes aren’t beaten into you, they put a lot of extra things in. This can make the story feel unfocused, but also gives it a dash of realism. There’s the old way of doing things vs. the new, does your past make you who you are, how to handle pain, who is your real family, and others. All of these are issues that come up, and I’m glad that it does address them all.
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