Unless I managed to miss one, there are zero -- count 'em, zero! -- references to any current pop culture phenomena in Kung Fu Panda 2. Can this really be a "2" by the same studio that labored to bring us the second Shrek film? It seems impossible, but it's true: despite the abundance of "DreamWorks Face" plastered on the posters, the film, taken as a sequel or by itself, is exceptional, Pixar-caliber entertainment on every level.
On the surface: like most animated movies these days, both Pandas feature an all-star voice cast of celebrities from all over the globe. It's certainly unique to hear Angelina Jolie sharing a scene with Seth Rogen, or Jackie Chan acting opposite David Cross, and it would be easy for the film to coast on its marquee names, but first-time director Jennifer Yuh effortlessly pulls off a tricky ensemble juggling act that gives everyone a slice of the spotlight. In particular, the films make the best use of Jack Black in years. Despite his increasingly exhausting live-action presence (Year One? Gulliver's Travels?), the comedian easily locates the sweet, enthusiastic center of our earnest hero Po without letting his larger-than-life act grind down on the audience's nerves.
The story, appended in earlier promo materials with the subtitle Kaboom of Doom, concerns the wicked Lord Shen and his quest for power. Stealing metal from all over the world, Shen forges the world's first cannons, which are described to Po and the Furious Five as having the power to "kill kung fu." Shen is played by Gary Oldman, Yuh's other secret weapon. The veteran thespian, given a role with surprising meat, perfectly encapsulates both Shen's truly wicked villainy (he is, after all, a murderer) and the comic aspects of the script. Not every villain can take a pratfall and still be menacing, but Oldman finds the line and deftly slides back and forth.
Still, more impressive than the direction of the actors is the direction of the action, which contains all the punch one expects from a summer blockbuster. It would be easy for a computer animated film to rely on purely impossible feats of kung fu wizardry, but the animation strives to give these characters the same grace of a real martial artist. In this regard, even the film's 3D is dazzling, giving the action a dazzling sense of depth. The animation is not done there: the film is chock full of gorgeous Asian landscapes, and the art style frequently shifts into traditional animation to deliver flashbacks. The animation also supports those excellent performances, especially Shen, whose emotional state is always vividly illustrated. Admittedly, there are a few wrinkles in the overall pacing during the big finale, but nothing so serious as to affect overall enjoyment.
At the center of the film, however, is a story that not only functions as true continuation of the events in the original, allowing the characters to grow and change in different ways than the first chapter, it's surprisingly emotionally engaging and resonant. I was not a huge fan of the original Kung Fu Panda, and yet, the sequel is so good at giving the audience characters and story to invest in that I admit I even found myself unexpectedly misty-eyed once or twice.
A few months ago, studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg announced that they planned on making a total of six Panda films, and I had to scoff, but if future sequels are even partially as good as this one, that's money well-spent. With gorgeous animation, dazzling action, and an ample helping of heart, Kung Fu Panda 2 is the rare summer sequel that transcends both summer and sequels: it's an impressive feat by any standard.
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