"My name is Po, and I need . . . a hat!" -- Po the Panda (Jack Black)
As much as I enjoyed the first Kung Fu Panda movie, I must admit I wasn't sure where they could take the story that would justify a full-blown sequel.
Yes, there were more fun stories you could tell about Po the Panda, the unlikely successor to the mantel of the Dragon Warrior and his friends The Furious Five. I've even pitched a few myself for the Kung Fu Panda comics series. But was there anything else that would sustain a movie audience for a full ninety minutes' I guess there was, because for me the sequel came close to meeting the standard set by the first movie.
It was fun, engaging, and at some points laugh-out-loud funny. Another positive was that you could watch this one without having seen the first movie, and still become absorbed in the story. You may miss some subtleties and references, but it wouldn't detract from the experience.
The main plot revolves around Po (voiced by Jack Black) and the Five on a mission to stop a warlord who has discovered that, as well as fireworks, gunpowder can be made to propel cannonballs; and is threatening to conquer China using his new weapons.
Running in parallel is Po's journey to discover who he is, and what his place in life will be. This secondary plot line is the heart and soul of the movie.
The reveal of Po's backstory, which both explains why pandas are rare and why his father is a goose, could easily have drifted into being overly sentimental; but while it is emotional at times it is well balanced with humor and action.
The whole tone and theme of the movie is one of balance. the ying & yang symbol is used throughout, and the conflict between redemption and vengeance adds yet another thematic layer.
In a recent online exchange, a couple of SF writers were discussing how many of today's animated "kids' movies" tackle complex themes and emotions that grown-up live action movies daren't go near.
I definitely add the Kung Fu Panda series to that category.
Visually, this is an interesting movie that mixes CGI, traditional animation and anime influences to great effect. The color palette is used subtly to set both tone and mood. The movie also both plays homage to, and parodies, many martial arts and action movie story tropes. It's that balance thing again.
One area it falls short: Some of the fight sequences were a little too frantic to follow all the action; this may have been more of a side effect of watching the movie in 3D than anything else.
The 3D wasn't intrusive and, unlike many other recent movies, didn't feel tacked on. But I wouldn't say it added anything, either. You could see this movie in 2D and not feel you were missing outlook.
Another negative for me was that The Furious Five weren't reused to the best effect. In the previous movie they were presented as a tight ensemble that functioned best as a unit. Here Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie) was positioned as the group leader and got most screen time, while Monkey (Jackie Chan) and the others didn't really get much to do, or even say.
The bad guy, a malevolent peacock (voiced by Gary Oldman), wasn't as menacing this time and really served more as a metaphor for the dichotomy between progress (gun powder) and tradition (Kung Fu) than as a genuine threat in his own right. Parts of his plotline also tended to drag.
Anyone who enjoyed the first Kung Fu Panda movie will also enjoy this one. It's entertaining, at times thought provoking, but above all it's a lot of fun.