So often, we're asked to enjoy animated films with an air of familiarity that harks to the first (or second, or third) entry in a series, where tag lines reemerge and the story walks and talks just like those that came before it. Kung Fu Panda 2 isn't immune to this; the mix of spirited brawls, throwbacks to classic '70s and '80s kung-fu cinema, and jabs at an unlikely, jiggly hero strays little from the formula that worked with Dreamworks' Oscar-nominated surprise hit from a few years back. Instead, the artistic gang has tweaked it a little by holding back on the humor and dialing up the explosive candy-coated action, while taking a serious angle by exploring the origin of Po, an orphaned panda fresh in the ways of the hand-to-hand art form. The result isn't a step-up in quality or originality, really, more maintaining status quo than anything else, but this brisk, action-driven romp is refreshingly free of the been-there, done-that rustiness that causes sequels to creak at the joints, and it does have a few creative surprises up its sleeve.
We're taken back to the hills of ancient China shortly after the events of the first Kung-Fu Panda, where Po (Jack Black) continues to train with the Furious Five as the newly-crowned "Dragon Warrior" -- a pre-destined hero of the land. His recent lessons focused on inner peace, led by his red panda master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), are interrupted by the threat of a new villain: Shen (Gary Oldman), a conniving peacock with aristocratic blood and capable kung-fu techniques, though he's more interested in the unyielding power of artillery and explosives than the honor of a fair fight. In the midst of a battle, triggered by an insignia on one of his opponent's sleeves, Po begins to have flashes of a memory filled with fire and violence that interrupt his butt-kicking, which seem to connect with his life before he started living with his dad, the chef- goose Mr. Ping (James Hong), at the noodle house. His journey to save China seems as if it'll have a second purpose this time: to discover where he comes from, and to find his own inner peace.
Nearly all of the positive comments paid to the original, from its merit solely as an action film to its consistent humor and eye-grabbing visuals (not to mention the strong voice cast, all of which return), can undeniably be carried over to Kung Fu Panda 2, a sharp and spirited piece of animation from Dreamworks that knows what it's doing when satisfying a wide-aged audience. Sure, the blubbery slapstick shtick knocking Po oafishly around grows more tedious this time around, and the cartoonish action goes overboard when watching a snake stretch, a hand-flung rickshaw fly down the street, or balls (or arrows) of fire conveniently not ignite our heroes. The excitement factor, though, rubs out these issues; you're so absorbed by the rush of energy that propels the simple story of the Furious
Dreamworks have also ramped up the design for Kung Fu Panda 2, spicing it up with some chic, dark new artistry. The designers either must have heard the praise that the hand-drawn watercolor-esque style received or discovered the creative potential on their own, because it's much more prevalent this time around within the core computer-generated imagery. All Po's memories (and a particularly clever dream sequence, involving a renegade radish) appear in this style, creating an elegant union between the two as his mind flashes from the present to the past. On top of that, choosing a peacock as the main villain opens up the opportunity for incredible eye-popping visuals, which the film exploits; the spread of Shen's wings, often draped in the dark, ominous blues of night and the radiance of iron-forged reds and yellows, create some really striking displays. The same sort of condensed, textured ancient-China scenery returns from the first film -- flourishing, green vistas and bustling villages -- but there's a healthy dose of creativity here that's more than just a lazy carry-over of the same models.
Kung Fu Panda 2's ace-in-the-hole, though, comes in some modest intelligence that underlines the script's main action thrust, and the structure it builds around orphans, rejection, rediscovering contentment and the "scars" that form in its place. While it's not enough to elevate this sequel to the caliber of a thinking man's animated film (though the aforementioned radish dream comes close to suggesting otherwise), it does use that curiosity and inner turmoil as a clever backbone for the progression of Po's story and the surfacing of a convincing villain, instead of merely creating another "big bad" to challenge the Dragon Warrior's pedigree ... or something simple-minded along those lines. There's some heft here, alongside a very blatant anti-weaponry message, and it's heightened by the quality of the villain himself: Gary Oldman takes his voice into piercing, exaggerated mode for Shen, and when matched with his sinister, albeit frail saunter and wing-spreading around his decadently-lit throne room, keeping your eyes glued to what this thwarted member of royalty does is more than a little gripping.
That's all secondary to the main point, though: Kung Fu Panda 2 is nearly, if not just as much fun as its predecessor, and it's because of the very clear balance stricken between pleasing its two audiences and concentrating on what gives the series its pulse. Dreamworks relies less on humor, makes it more dynamic and epic-scaled in terms of action (there's a crumbling tower scene at the center that's breathtaking), and pumps it full of personality that's not insulting to either adults or children. Sure, there might be too much action and colorful explosions, and the more intimate moments involving Po's discovery of inner peace and his lineage might be crammed into, and rushed through, its 90-minute run, but when animation's this thrilling on a base level -- I don't hesitate in saying that it's one of the best action movies of 2011 -- then the lack of restraint really doesn't matter, and will be most welcome in the all-but-assured sequel that's suggested at the end.
Paramount and Dreamworks have put together a two-disc package for Kung Fu Panda 2: Disc One as the Blu-ray presentation of the film, and Disc Two as a bare-boned DVD/Digital Copy disc. Original pressings arrive with a slipcover that repeats the artwork on the front and back of the case, with a red border around the artwork on the front cover for a little added flair. Inserts contained within have activation codes for online games and the digital copy for the film.
Video and Audio:
It's what you'd expect from digitally-transferred, up-to-date CG animation wrapped around a vibrant, vigorous kung-fu film: absolute gorgeous perfection.
This 2.4:1 1080p AVC treatment packs a furious punch on Blu-ray, maintaining the high caliber for the discs that Dreamworks (and Paramount) have cranked out for their computer-generated work -- such as the reference-level How to Train Your Dragon and those affable Shrek films. Vieweres familiar with the original Kung Fu Panda's quality in the HD arena will find familiar, entrancing eye-candy here: sprawling ancient Chinese vistas full of emerald foliage and misty mountains, fluffy/feathered/scaly warriors with intricate textures and compelling details, and fast-moving martial-arts action that keeps every pixel in place and un-problematic. It's the sequel's risk-taking in art direction that the disc becomes quite singular, especially in darker sequences; aside from the complexity of the peacock Shen's spread of feathers, the nighttime scenes involving molded dragon cannons draped in cobalt and crimson lights will leave one gob-smacked, and it gets even better when the pinkish-red fireworks billow from the cannons' mouths. Contrast remains impeccably-balanced, the color palette hits on nearly every single shade in the spectrum without a fault, and I couldn't spot a hint of aliasing or bleeding upon further inspection. It's, quite simply, a delight, and certainly a great disc to flex a panel's or projector's muscle.
While you can pretty much bank on the visual treatment for a CG-animated film to be near-perfect on Blu-ray, that doesn't necessarily mean the audio accompanying it will be equally as strong. But, man, this 7-channel TrueHD track that Paramount paired with the visual transfer for Kung Fu Panda 2 accomplishes something pretty noteworthy: it's as good, perhaps even more impressive, than the impeccable visuals. The voice acting rings out as clear as a bell, keeping the higher-range female voices and the middle-range bass for the men in mind while preserving the clarity, while the thumps of drums, the clangs of other percussion instruments, and the fervent Asian flair in Hans Zimmer and John Powell's score envelop the entire film with complete period immersion. But those all play second fiddle to the punches, explosions, and all-out chaos cradled in the sound effects, which bountifully stretch to all corners of the sound stage and show both elegant restraint and full-on aggressiveness all all points where they're needed. That nighttime scene I've mentioned a few times? Yeah, it sounds as good as it looks, with the cannon blasts, crashing buildings, and all-around sonic vigor matching the visuals into what will easily become a reference sequence to demo my home theater. English, Spanish, and French subs accompany the release, while 5.1 tracks in French, Spanish, and English descriptive are also available.
Secrets of the Masters (23:00; HD)
The most blatantly strong special feature of the bunch comes in a short animated film produced by Dreamworks as an add-on to the universe, one that's very much in-line with the "Secrets of the Furious Five" short animated piece included with the 2009 Blu-ray of Kung Fu Panda. Concocted in the same watercolor/ Adobe Illustrator-esque vibrant art style, Secrets of the Masters tells another action-packed origin story of some of the kung-fu masters that inspired Po in his youth (and, well in his current state). You'll discover badass warrior cats, sagely tortoises (yeah, that's totally Oogway from the first film), and exactly how a few of the introduced kung-fu masters in the second film found their heroic purposes. The animation isn't as polished, either the stock computer-generated content or the rest, and the story itself doesn't really add much to what we already know; however, in terms of pleasing a younger crowd and serving the purpose of a twenty-minute cartoon in the same world, it's vibrant, engaging, and definitely worth the brief time it take up. Be warned, though, that the audio seems dialed up a few notches, so you might want to lower the decibels a little beforehand.
Blu-ray Exclusive Extras:
Animation Inspiration (11:09, HD):
This segment consists of an interactive map with locations from the film scattered across it, and when each item is picked -- from the Valley of Peace and Gongmen City to Shen's palace in the Tower of the Sacred Flame -- each items features interviews that talk a bit about the real locations that served as templates. The discussion remains straightforward enough for younger audiences, but the historical accuracy and reference photographs hold adult interests, too. You can watch the segments individually, or all together via a "Play All" function that lasts a little over eleven minutes.
The Animators' Corner:
Here, we've got an extensive, picture-in-picture function playable with the core film, featuring a hefty amount of elucidating interviews with the cast and crew, sketches, and reference footage of China. But like most features of this type, it requires a little legwork to make it happen: the audio won't play with the track unless you change the player's settings from bitstreaming to internal decoding.
A Trivia Track can also be paired with the film, which allows bits of text scrolled on parchment to appear at the bottom of the screen with some fun and insightful information: the types of goods that appear in Chinese markets, info about Chinese mythology, and, uh, the food Po eats in the movie.
Feature Filmmaker Commentary:
Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, producer Melissa Cobb, production design Raymond Zibach, and jack-of-all-trades artist/choreographer Rodolphe Guenoden plop down in the commentators' chairs for a track very clearly (and pleasingly) geared towards older, cinema-minded audiences. They discuss the art techniques used, establishing the mystical elements and symbolism/juxtaposition of the elements in the film, and some of the references and authenticity they pulled from in terms of the characters and their kung-fu techniques. Something I really appreciate in the chat is the way they talk about the scenery and locations in the film as if they're real places, instead of just a digitally-produced facade -- something that's expected considering how extensively they scouted Chinese locations for inspiration. The energy of the track remains low-key but involving, they goes down welcome conversational diversions involving reference sketches and life experiences, the actor back-slapping is restrained and authentic, and they do dig into the parallel between Po's and Shen's family issues ... and how they're the same, but different.
Kickin' It with the Cast (12:42, HD):
While we've got a lot of generic chatter about the characters themselves, it's counterbalanced by the fun stretches of watching the actors voicing the film's lines in the recording studio. I'm glad that they place a lot of emphasis on James Hong and Mr. Ping, and once they move towards the new cast members -- and focuses on Gary Oldman in the booth -- it gets more interesting. It's a shame that you can't see Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber, and Michelle Yeoh in the booth, but yeah, you totally get to see Jean-Claude Van Damme recording his lines as the crocodile (and in an interview).
Several other supplements fill out the package with appealing items for both older and younger audiences. Several Deleted Scenes (4:21, HD) appear as hand-drawn storyboards with introductions from Jennifer Yuh Nelson, while Panda Stories (7:44, HD) talks about the up-close "inspiration" experience when the creative team observed the endangered species in-person -- and the current biological/research status of the panda, as well as following a baby panda's birth and growth at Zoo Atlanta. And for the younger audiences, we've got a few other goodies to tear through: a series of (bland) cartoons under Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness (23:50, HD), as well as Kung Fu Shuffle and Ni Hao, two remote-activated games.
It'd be hard not to enjoy the living daylights out of Kung Fu Panda 2, a sequel that knows how to remain faithful to the series' essence and shake off the been-there, done-that fatigue that could weigh it down. Everything that Dreamworks got right with the first film makes a repeat appearance this time around: vigorous martial-arts action that rivals even live-action contemporaries, charming humor from a near-perfect voice cast, and a rush of splendid visuals that transport those watching to another time and place. But what makes it appealing is that it takes everything up a notch this time around, from the complexity of the art design to the peppering of intelligent, emotional heft that, really, wouldn't have been necessary to sustain its audience. The folks at Dreamworks Animation, under the helm of director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, elevated the property instead of resting on their laurels and doing more of the same, and that's what makes it a winner. The Blu-ray is top-shelf material, with a reference-level audiovisual presentation of the heightened design and an age-appropriate slate of supplements, which makes it very Highly Recommended.