In the summer of 2011, two sequels opened within weeks of each other that greatly altered my opinion of the preceding film. The first was The Hangover Part II, one of the worst received sequels of the decade. The film was racist, transphobic, had a view of sex workers that might’ve been the most prudish possible, and an overall nihilism that dared us to keep watching. It was bad but it was maybe worse because it made us see how all of those issues were in the first film which did after all use a convicted rapist as a joke. We weren’t as aware because we were playing along.
The inverse of that is today’s subject. Kung Fu Panda 2 is brilliant. It’s a bold leap of a film that takes risk after risk be it in the art or in the story. It’s a much more daring film than its predecessor but it’s able to be such because it uses the framework of its safer origin to explore a much richer mythology.
I want to try to simplify the plot synopsis as much as I can. Peacock villain Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) has invented gunpowder as a weapon and is seeking to conquer all he sees. Newly minted Dragon Warrior Po (Jack Black) tries to lead his team to stop him but Lord Shen’s army triggers traumatic flashbacks to his early years. As Po tries to stop the villain it becomes clear his destiny is far greater and far more complicated than he thought.
This movie is as I said a much bolder film than what came before. It’s a much more serious wuxia film. The plot is far more complex than unlikely hero discovers his worth. The film begins after all with the genocide of a panda village. There’s a lot of focus on prophecy and mysticism this time. We’re in a film much closer to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon than Kung Fu Hustle. The action is on par with both.
And to get there the film uses a running joke from the first and turns it brutal. Obviously a panda isn’t the son of a goose. But how did Po become the son of Mr. Ping (James Hong)? He was left on his doorstep to keep him safe. This is a cliche–a lost prince–but the movie makes it work and that’s heavily on Hong who tells this story with unimaginable pain. The movie sells this idea.
It also does what not enough sequels do in that it advances the characters. Po isn’t a goofy dork anymore. He’s actually an accomplished warrior. There’s no silly rest button to provide stakes the way D2: The Mighty Ducks did with the characters not practicing. Instead the movie heightens the stakes with a more dangerous villain and weakens Po by forcing him to confront trauma. Sure it’s still fun but the stakes count.
There’s also so much more of a sense of the world. The movie has a larger scope and that makes it acceptable that we might get vocal cameos from Jean Claude Van Damme or Dennis Haysbert. Instead of feeling like unneeded names, they feel like avenues we just haven’t gone down. The reveal about the pandas is a sign there’s much more out there.
And how I could go on about the animation on this film. I saw this in 3D and I feel like seeing it in 2D is to miss 1/3 of the film. This is on par with Avatar and Hugo for experimenting with the format. The film is so lush with snow flung in our faces and deep landscapes to study. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson did the opening for the first and uses this as a showcase. When the movie experiments with a brief 2D interlude for Po’s childhood, it’s breathtaking.
Much of the animation looking this good is down to the famed effort put into studying China in the first film that’s only amplified here. The filmmakers didn’t phone in generic Chinese imagery. The movie feels like it exists in a specific world, namely the city Chengdu, the famed panda capitol. This is a movie that feels tangible.
The voice work is also better. The Furious Five are still an afterthought but Black and Hong go far deeper this time. Michelle Yeoh is incredible as a soothsayer goat. But the film belongs to gleefully unhinged Gary Oldman. After this, things would turn stoic for him but this is a last gasp of his delirious 90s villainy. He is so much fun as a demented villain.
Is the film perfect? No. As I said, the side characters continue to be overcast window dressing. The film also pulls its punch at the end for a sequel hook revealing Po still has a living family. I get that it’s a sequel hook but it’s a pulled punch all the same.
But this is a hell of a triumph. It’s not the best Dreamworks movie, I’d argue How to Train Your Dragon and The Prince of Egypt are better, but it’s damn close. A smart, thoughtful, fun martial arts epic for all ages that moves the goalposts. This is what sequels should be.
What about the third? As I write this, it’s a mystery to me. I haven’t seen it. But I will. It’s next.