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Kung Fu Panda 2 - Ultimate Edition of Awesomeness
Picking up where the original Kung Fu Panda left off, Kung Fu Panda 2 finds Po (Jack Black) a real member of the Furious Five (also consisting of Angelina Jolie's Tigress, Jackie Chan's Monkey, Lucy Liu's Viper, David Cross's Crane, and Seth Rogen's Mantis), swooping in to save innocent bystanders when bad guys come out to play. Their newest nemesis: Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a powerful peacock who has been stealing metal from all over the world in order to forge the world's first cannons, which are described to Po and the Five as having the power to "kill kung fu." Po may be the Dragon Warrior, but the destruction caused by Shen's cannons certainly concerns Po, the Five, and Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), even before Po's emotions are thrown into turmoil when he discovers that he and Shen have a terrible connection.
Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson served as an animation supervisor for the action sequences on the original, and she steps up to the plate on the sequel, taking the elements that worked and delivering on them again, while adding new elements that only sweeten the deal. In terms of the cast, she pulls off a tricky ensemble juggling act that gives everyone a slice of the spotlight. Both Kung Fu Panda movies make great use of Jack Black: despite his increasingly exhausting live-action presence (Year One?), the comedian easily locates the sweet, enthusiastic center of our earnest hero Po without letting his larger-than-life act become monotonous. However, this time he shares more screen time with Jolie's Tigress, who has finally softened to the idea of Po as an equal, providing the movie with some of its most unexpected dramatic moments. Oldman is 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.
The action manages to one-up the already impressive kung fu on display in the original. It would be easy for a computer animated film to rely on purely impossible feats of kung fu wizardry, but Nelson again strives to give these characters the same grace of a real martial artist. The film's opening action sequence is funny, thrilling, and manages to convey character and story through the action, especially with regard to Po's increasing abilities. There are also more comic action sequences, including a lengthy chase scene through a city involving a dragon costume and a slowly crumbling apple cart, and the movie's finale manages to top them all by being gorgeous, moving, and wildly exciting. Of course, the animation is not done there, either: the film is chock full of gorgeous Asian landscapes, and the art style once again shifts into traditional animation to deliver flashbacks. The dazzling visuals support the movie's excellent performances, especially Shen, whose emotional state is always vividly illustrated.
All that said, Kung Fu Panda 2's real secret to success lies in a story that functions as true continuation of the events in the original, allowing the characters to grow and change from the place we left them in the first chapter. So many sequels fall into the trap of letting their characters regress in order to learn the same lessons, but Yuh and the screenwriters move the story forward instead of backward. As I mentioned in my review of the original, the first movie has a strong message, gorgeous visuals, and fun action, but I admire it more than find it emotionally resonant. Kung Fu Panda 2 doesn't just match the original in all of the stylistic areas, but it reveals information about Po that is moving and emotionally engaging, and not just because it once again gives James Hong a chance to slip in and become the movie's surprise MVP. With gorgeous animation, dazzling action, and an ample helping of heart, Kung Fu Panda 2 is the rare summer sequel that outshines the original.
At some point a couple of years ago, it seems all the studios agreed that the best way to sell DVDs to kids was to simplify the art as much as possible: a colored backdrop, the title, and the face of a main character. The new DVD editions of Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Panda 2 are not quite in line -- the artwork is too zoomed in for a colored backdrop, and there is a red-and-white banner at the top, but the cover here is mostly taken up by Po's face, and his arm, holding onto a piece of bamboo with a water droplet rolling gently off a leaf. The back cover is black with just a single image on it, and the design favors the bonus disc over the old extras. The one major benefit of this set over other Kung Fu Panda DVDs is the presence of an UltraViolet Digital HD copy. Yes, this SD product comes with an HD code, an emerging tactic that 20th Century Fox also used on their recent James Bond collections, as well as with the accompanying re-release of the first Kung Fu Panda.
The Video and Audio
Like the new DVD for the original, Kung Fu Panda 2's 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound are both digitally sourced, so there's not really any expectation that the presentations will be better than other DVDs already available. Like that disc, again, the presentation looks generally decent, although the fact that CGI looks "perfect" when presented in high definition really does allow one to see the degree of difference between an HD version of a CG animated movie and an SD one. Colors are nicely saturated and no serious issues are on display. Once again, the sounds of kung fu fighting provide the basic backdrop for the disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, although in this case, there's also the thunderous addition of cannon fire to go with it, as well as the fact that, like most sequels, Kung Fu Panda 2 ups the ante. More action, more mayhem, more opportunities for the surround sound to do its business, plus another lovely Hans Zimmer and John Powell score as a backdrop. English Descriptive Audio DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1, French DD 5.1, English DD 2.0, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Kung Fu Panda 2's DVD edition takes things a step further than Kung Fu Panda's, assuming the viewer is buying them in order -- in addition to a few carryover extras from the original DVD (a commentary, deleted scenes, and a "Kicking It With the Cast" featurette), the exact same bonus disc is included in both films' "Ultimate Edition of Awesomeness" DVDs. Instead of repeat myself, I'll just link to that review for a rundown of what's on the bonus platter.
As with the accompanying edition of Kung Fu Panda, this DVD of Kung Fu Panda 2 is geared at a very limited audience, one that doesn't want to buy a Blu-ray, and doesn't already own Kung Fu Panda 2 on video, but is excited about Kung Fu Panda 3. As the quality of the release as a whole isn't dependent on how many people out there fall into that audience, this release earns a recommendation on its own merit.
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