If the best sequels build off their predecessors in ways that progress and deepen the shared material, then good sequels must at least avoid simply rehashing the original. In many respects, Kung Fu Panda 2 feels like the first installment of a franchise that, to be frank, never needed to be a franchise. But apart from a too-comfortable relationship with fat jokes in times of crises, the film never comes off as a retread. My favorite aspect of the first film was its respect for Chinese culture, incorporating its art and architecture—the latter, in my opinion, being the most beautiful in the world—with reverence as it played around in the digital sandbox. That sense of appreciation of the culture, even if it is a background for Jack Black's decidedly non-classical style, extends to the sequel, and I found it funny how the faithfully rendered Chinese palaces and pavilions almost seemed a flight of fancy on the part of the animators because of their beauty and grace.
If the first film occurred in tucked away villages and training halls, Kung Fu Panda 2 moves deeper into the urban sprawl of feudal China, massive collections of homes under the watchful eye of a pagoda so large that, were it any taller, God would strike everyone in it with different tongues to stop all communication. But the religious elegance of the pagoda, like the rest of Gongmen City, also carries a grim sense of oppression, one heightened when a wrathful prince returns to reclaim the throne his horrified parents denied him so long ago.
This villain, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman, proving he can be just as great a bad guy with just his voice as he can in the flesh), immediately sets the film apart from the first by presenting not simply a stronger beast than the tiger who fought against our heroes the last time but a less strong but more graceful creature. An albino Indian peafowl, Shen swoops and twirls, feathers hiding knives that fly out with every flourish, and his mad fury makes these metal showers all the more overwhelming. Yet Shen is also resentful of his lack of force, and he devises cannons from gunpowder as a means of overcoming any fighter superior to him.
Thanks to a prophecy foretelling his fall at the hands of a warrior of black and white, Shen ordered the genocide of pandas years ago, the act that led to his banishment. This, of course, links him to Po, now living the high life as the Dragon Warrior in the Valley of Peace. When Shen's wolves ransack the valley for spare money for the lord's war machines, Po gets his first hint of something deeper with a vague emotional trigger that prompts a memory he does not understand. Later, when Shen kills a great kung fu master with his weaponry and takes back Gongmen, Po and the Furious Five head out to stop him, Po nursing ulterior motives of learning more about the buried identity being unlocked in fragments.
At times, Po's story is a bit too broad and convenient: rewriting the unremarkable Po of the first film to be seemingly the last panda left alive on Earth opens up too many questions. Why did no one ever say anything about his rarity? Did word of a great panda warrior not reach beyond the valley and find its way back to the paranoid Shen? As for Po's relationship with his adoptive father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), the panda slips in and out of total idiocy as he seems both to know that a goose obvious isn't his biological dad and be shocked when Ping finally says it out loud. Po's attempts to find himself through his scattered, subconscious memories would have worked better had the audience not already been told upfront about Shen's extermination of pandas.
Nevertheless, Kung Fu Panda 2 has such sure grasp of emotion that even the holes and redundancies opened up by its script do not truly detract from the film. Po's struggles with identity lead to introspective moments from himself and Mr. Ping, who steals the film with Hong's quivering, almost pleading voice seeking to keep his son's love (he brought nearly everyone in theater, regardless of age, to tears). Furthermore, the repeated flashbacks can be distinguished from each other by looking at the first segment as a matter-of-fact, if folkloric, description of events while the later attempts by Po to piece together his broken recollections show his emotional response to that atrocity and his quest to come to terms with it.
However childish this makes me, I will always be in awe of great animation. Given that I cannot even draw basic outlines with any definition or even linearity (ask anyone I've given one of my strange, pointless comics as a jokey present), I can hardly wrap my head around the sheer number of man-hours and creative collaboration it takes to put together an animated film, either by hand or on computers. That's why I got so frustrated with so many of Dreamworks' projects: why waste all that time and considerable effort on the Shrek films, the movie equivalent of the "Now That's What I Call Music" series? Long passages of Kung Fu Panda are so well-rendered, so enthralling in background and movement and action that I walked out of the theater with barely four pages of notes on a small notepad I cannot see and thus leave massive amounts of white space on each page.
From the bombast of Gongmen City to the mercurial flow of Shen (all swift, slinking movements with bursts of peacockish pride and infinite madness), the animation reflects the style and tone not only of contemporary action cinema but classical Asian art. The animators also use a number of traditional, 2D scenes for flashbacks, and these feel like old Chinese paintings come to life. They could have made the whole film like this, so striking were the 2D interludes. My one complaint is that it was animated like a modern action movie, meaning that active editing occasionally dips into excessive editing, not capturing the full grace and dance of martial arts to instead go for quick flashes of swords and fists. Yet I had a clearer grasp on the space-time relations of characters in even the most complicated scene than I do with most live-action films these days, and director Jennifer Yuh Nelson knows when to pull back and give us a clearer view of the action.
A bit too open at times about trying to magnify the heart and the visual inventiveness of the first (not to mention so predictable that the prophesied victory could have been foretold by the audience as much as any soothsayer), Kung Fu Panda nevertheless manages to do so without becoming to unwieldy and disjunctive. It may not quite reach the simple, pure pleasures of its predecessor, but this film will likely emerge near or at the top of the heap of this year's Summer of Sequels. My love of animation necessarily means I must confront my hatred of children, and one of my unspoken criteria of a great animated film is that it does something to stop kids from making noise.
I might have to amend my cynicism: Kung Fu Panda 2 not only didn't silence children, it made them make different kinds of sounds. They just so happened to be split between riotous laughs, exclamations of wonder and joy, and sniffled, occasionally bawled, tears. That's a greater range of emotional response than this year's slate of hollow, derivative blockbusters is likely to offer. If Dreamworks keeps this sort of thing up, I'm going to have to find a new punching bag. They've finally started acting like a group of professionals with creative drive and vision, and the results over the last few years have been beautiful—let's just look the other way with the upcoming Puss in Boots, shall we?