Review: Kung Fu Panda 2

Stars Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman

Cert PG.

 In cinemas now.

Having become the legendary Dragon Warrior in the first movie, Po the Panda must now go with the Furious Five to the big city, to prevent the evil Lord Shen from conquering all of China with his superweapon: Cannon. On the way, Po learns more about his own past…

A lot of CG animated movies around tend to be excuses for pop-culture references and rock songs – Madagascar and Cars immediately spring to mind – but what made the original Kung Fu Panda so good was that it was simply a kung fu comedy that happened to have CG animated characters. It eschewed pop-culture references, and was true to the conventions of the genre, as well as respecting Chinese culture and myth.

The sequel is just as good, and for pretty much the same reasons. The plot is simple enough, and the inevitable moral obvious enough, though far less sledgehammered than in the first movie. As before, the characters are engaging and amusing, though with more of them around some of them are somewhat short-changed, while others are developed nicely. On the one hand, Po and Tigress seem to be growing closer, and Mr Ping (Po’s dad) has more to do. We also learn more of Po’s backstory, developing his character, but, on the other hand, Master Shifu is particularly sidelined, and there also seems to be less dialogue and action for Crane and Monkey this time. Making up for this, however, are the two main new characters: The Sorceress (Michelle Yeoh voicing a rather stunted goat) and this movie’s villain, the evil peacock Lord Shen. Shen is a stronger villain than Tai Lung was in the first movie, and also has a lot more screen time. His performance is amazingly nuanced, and by this I don’t just mean Gary Oldman’s vocals – the animation of Shen’s expressions is quite astonishing. This is a CG performer that really acts, and without motion capture, or letting Andy Serkis anywhere near the studio.

In fact the animation here is incredible throughout. The settings and characters are quite amazing in places, and actually achieve the *reverse* of the “uncanny valley” problem. The uncanny valley is when we see a CG representation of a real thing (say a human being), but there’s something just too plasticky and unreal about it and we know it’s not real. Here… when they’re on the boat to go to the city, you’d swear blind the animators had put CG characters on a real boat on the real water. But they didn’t. When Tigress and Po are in the water, you’d equally think you were looking at animatronic puppets or people in suits in water, because that’s how good the textures look. You know they’re entirely CG, but they look real, even though you know they can’t be, because talking anthropomorphic Tigresses and the like don’t exist, and well you know it.

The chase scenes and fight scenes are just as good – fast, fluid and clear. Geat stuff. Lord Shen is particularly impressive again here, using his tail as a shield, and throwing knives around with abandon. This is meant to to be a comedy for all ages, and, sure enough, the gags – situational, slapstick, and dialogue – are all up to scratch, providing plenty of laughs.

As with the original film, if you’re a fan of wuxia-peng you’ll spot quite a few conventions of the genre – it’s never expressly mentioned, but Shen is portrayed exactly like the “evil eunuch” trope from wuxia-peng such as Tai Chi Master, and Po tends to shout out the moves he’s making, just like in far too many 1970s movies – as well as moments echoing specific movies. The score, by Hans Zimmer and John Powell, is beautifully done (and thankfully free of the re-worded “Kung Fu Fighting” from the previous movie), and the sound overall is great. There are plenty of callbacks to the first movie, from the trivially smile-raising (Mr Ping’s place now serves tofu, implying he learned to follow his dream) to the confusing if you don’t remember (Mantis’ action figure is life-size). The latter, sadly, needed to have been properly flagged up in the film, and ends up being one of the few flaws. No film is perfect, and so there’s the odd shot where something changes when the angle changes, and Shen suddenly knowing the whole “inner peace” quest that Po was thinking about.

Verdict: Funny, exciting, and free of gratuitous pop-culture references. That can only be a winner. They’ve even thoughtfully put the tag-scene-indicating-where-the-next-movie-will-go bit immediately *before* the credits instead of after… It is, as Po would say, Awesome!  10/10

David A McIntee

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