Who would have expected Kung Fu Panda to become a surprising, heartwarming summer hit back in 2008, where I thought it had captured the very essence of a typical martial arts film, and distilled it into an animated piece appealing both to kids and adults alike. The big risk involved is of course coming up with the inevitable follow up film given the profits that it had raked in, that won't be an insult to its fans, and yet maintaining that same level of appeal the original had. Kung Fu Panda 2 succeeded.
Although it certainly did seem that passing the reins over to rookie director Jennifer Yuh was bewildering, but Yuh turned out to be perfect in guiding the sequel and the beloved characters in yet another adventure, with bigger set action pieces, touching dramatic moments, and retaining plenty of humour from the get go. Credit of course must go to writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger in coming up with a natural progression of the story of Po (Jack Black), and filling it with a lot more elements from classic martial arts film formulas such as a jail break involving skilled pugilists in captivity, a pagoda, getting beat down, recovery and recuperation, and the learning of a new, ultimate skill. To think that the worries came from the scribes being responsible for the snooze-fest Monsters Vs Aliens, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.
Kung Fu Panda 2 brings back the A-list voices of Black as Po the Panda, now very much comfortable in his celebrity role of the prophesied Dragon Warrior, and the Furious Five consisting of Angelina Jolie as the no-nonsense, hard hitting Tigress, Seth Rogen as the wisecracking Mantis, David Cross as Crane, Lucy Liu as Viper and the underused Jackie Chan as Monkey, recognizable animals used in distinctive martial arts boxing styles. Also returning are Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu and James Hong as Mr Ping, while joining the fray are Gary Oldman as the chief villain Lord Shen the vain peacock, Michelle Yeoh as The Soothsayer, Jean-Claude Van Damme as Master Croc, Dennis Haysbert as Master Oxen and Victor garber as Master Thundering Rhino, the latter three forming some formidable masters of kung fu whose city they're protecting falls under siege.
The story continues to loosely adopt from historical developments in China, with the premise being set during the time when gunpowder was discovered and fireworks created, but with the more sinister use of the material also for the creation of weapons such as the cannon, threatening the extinction of martial arts with its formidable firepower. Lord Shen becomes fanatical in plundering metal from the land with the ambition to rule all of China, but for his Soothsayer to predict his downfall to come from something black and white, hence his dogged massacre of pandas with his wolf pack goons, before setting his sights on and signaling his diabolical intent on some legendary martial arts masters.
It's pretty amazing how this under 90 minute film also managed to squeeze in plenty of pathos in the form of Po having to unlock his repressed memory of being necessarily abandoned by his parents following a pattern ala Moses with the pandas being threatened with forced extinction, which provides tons of baby panda to milk some scheming, crafty moments to tug at your heartstrings, and you can hear that audible gasps of "oh so cute"s from female members of the audiences. Well done, if the studio decides to make money from merchandising. Narratively it's pretty predictable following the generic essence of typical kung fu film classics, what with the learning of inner peace and new skills involved that resembled very much like Taichi-quan, but what mattered of course is the delivery that hit expectations, and not buckle under that same weight brought over from a successful first film.
Then of course there's the spectacular fight sequences, especially when Po and the Fearsome Five combine to protect the innocent masses against hordes of enemies that come with the requisite comedy, from slapstick to lyrical, like poetry in motion when they showcase their respective, distinctive moves. Big action set pieces are well designed, and I give my thumbs up to how the villain is modelled after the peacock, which in itself brings about the theme of vanity that almost all villains possess, but in the context of kung fu, it's extremely smart to design Lord Shen to move and utilize his own innate weaponry, that of sneaky darts and fans - a weapon that in Chinese martial arts film, is the weapon of choice of the "wei jun zi" - the "fake gentleman" (sorry if my interpretation sucks, but you get my drift).
No qualms about this installment, I would put it in my highly recommended list as a sequel that didn't forget about the spirit of the original, and if the filmmakers can continue to capture exactly what makes martial arts movies tick and distill it like it did for the first two films, I dare say we're in for a mighty strong franchise that will appeal to kids, and every kung fu film fan out there who will probably go nuts at how well this animated series managed to get the formula right.
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