Sequels are tricky business. The audience, satiated by the first film, expects more from the second. Most film makers mistake the more to mean simply more of the elements that made the first film good. So a sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean will simply find excuses to shoehorn more and more eye popping visuals and Jack Sparrow humour without bothering with a coherent story let alone daring to deliver something different. Very rarely does a sequel try something different and actually succeeds in it, while keeping the elements that made the original so successful (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Toy Story 2). Kung Fu Panda 2 attempts that and thankfully, succeeds in doing so, by and large.
Welcome back to the Valley. Po (Jack Black) has, with the Furious Five, protected the Valley and maintained peace and harmony. However, sinister things are brewing in Gongmen City, where a formidable villain, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) has sworn to bring an end to kung fu and devised a weapon that threatens peace in all of China. At the same time, Po discovers a secret about his past that makes him question everything and he must find answers as he sets out on a journey to defeat the enemy and save not only the Valley but all of China!
In terms of plotting, the film owes a big debt to the Biblical story of Moses and a more minor one to The Lion King. However, these plot devices are suitably transposed to the universe of the Panda and, thanks to some clever writing and strong storytelling, stand on their own to provide a thoroughly entertaining time. While the film is short on humour compared to the first, there are several moments which will have you laughing hard. The dragon disguise scene in particular is side splittingly funny. The action set pieces are innovative and funny and awe-inspiring in equal measure. The film also charts into new territory with its dramatic elements. This is a considerably darker and meaner film. Both the hero and his nemesis are given more depth and dimension than the first. And it does a fantastic job of balancing it all providing grand entertainment with sufficient pathos to make it well worth our time. In doing so, it is much better than Shrek 2 made by the same studio, which attempted something similar (in that case, trading comedy for romance).
What also helps the film greatly is that it is gorgeously animated. Each frame is rich in terms of colour and texture. Even the most mundane and routine elements are beautifully visualised and brought alive on the screen. Particularly, the animation in flashbacks and the climactic battle is breathtaking and the visuals there add greatly to the emotional impact. The voice cast as expected, never disappoints and there are excellent vocal cameos from Michelle Yeoh as the Soothsayer and Jean Claude Van-Damme as Master Croc. Jack Black carries the film on his broad shoulders and is ever bit as endearing as he was in the first outing.
Ultimately, Kung Fu Panda 2 is quite different from its predecessor in substance and tone in that it is considerably less funny and more dramatic. However, what it may lack in humour, it more than makes up for in adventure, scale, depth and poignancy. Moreover, it loses none of the heart and little of the exuberance that made the first so endearing. Magnificently animated and thoroughly entertaining from start to end, Kung Fu Panda 2 is that rare kind of sequel that not only delivers the goods, but leaves you longing for more. I didn’t think I would say this, but we really need a third outing. Soon.