The first Kung Fu Panda was a refreshing change for DreamWorks Animation, a CG comedy/adventure that traded pop-culture references for a kid-friendly kung fu genre tale. Kung Fu Panda 2 is out today, and while the tone is a bit less kung fu and a bit more Pixar, this is still clearly a movie that has respect for the intelligence of its audience. There's no elaborate reintroduction to a cast of characters we've already met, no long-winded recap of the previous movie's events. This is really just the continuing adventures of the Dragon Warrior & the Furious Five, which is great news.
The story picks up some time after the events of the 2008 movie. We start out with a brief rundown of our new antagonist's history, which also ties in directly with the question many of us asked after the first film: Where are all the other pandas? No spoilers here, but you find out early on that Po (Jack Black) has good reason to have beef with the evil Indian peafowl Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), even if he doesn't realize it.
Kung Fu Panda was a very close-to-home story for Po. He had dreams of becoming a kung fu master, and those dreams were partially realized by the end of the movie in the most unusual of ways. He's still on that path when the sequel opens, but his adventure this time extends far beyond the boundaries of the Valley of Peace. The deeper look at Po's China is refreshing, as the basic story moves to a beat similar to its predecessor.
None of the action sequences ever quite manage to rival the stunning execution of Tai Lung's elaborate prison escape in the first movie, but Kung Fu Panda 2 has a major technological advantage: 3D. Both movies are visually spectacular, but this is one of those rare movies where the 3D is worth the increased ticket price. It's very subtle, much more Avatar than Piranha. You feel like an observer within Po's world rather than a member of an audience, which is what we've come to expect from quality 3D.
It's also great to spend more time with the Furious Five, Po's companion kung fu warriors from the first movie. Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen and David Cross as Tigress, Monkey, Viper, Mantis and Crane, respectively, have a lot more time to shine and grow as characters than they did previously. The cost is that we get less of Dustin Hoffman's Master Shifu, a red panda and top-dog master in the Valley of Peace, but the time we do spend with him, especially later on, delivers some of the movie's most electrifying moments.
The great edge that Kung Fu Panda 2 has over the previous outing is its heart. The connection between Po and Shen leads to some revelations about our star panda's past. He gets some strong emotional moments as the truth of his heritage is revealed, particularly in more than one touching scene between him and his adoptive father/goose, Mr. Ping (James Hong). Po is rendered as much more human this time around; he's still a bit of a buffoon, but glimpses of his inner sadness imbue the character with more depth. Pixar is still better at bringing out the tears, but Kung Fu Panda 2 comes damn close.
Also worth mentioning is that Jack Black's penchant for scatting is once again toned down. As with the last movie, there's is just a single, well-timed "skidoosh." The rest of the time we hear him speaking proper English.
If there's any real fault to point at, it's that some great new characters are introduced but we get to spend very little time with them. This is especially true for the three new masters we meet, Master Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Master Thundering Rhino (Victor Garber) and Master Storming Ox (Dennis Haysbert). Michelle Yeoh also gets to have some fun as The Soothsayer, a wise old goat. Fortunately, there's a very (very) deliberate nod at the very end of the movie to a larger story -- not quite a cliffhanger, but definitely in the "oh no they didn't!" camp -- so we've almost certainly not seen the last of this crew of newcomers.
Go see Kung Fu Panda 2. It is money well spent. If you were scared away from DreamWorks Animation by movies like A Shark's Tale, it's time to come back. Catch up with Kung Fu Panda; that should be all the convincing you need. This is an excellent sequel. Some might be disappointed that it's less of an authentic kung fu movie experience, but the absence is more than made up for with a great, big, beating heart.