Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Vibrant and exciting, Kung Fu Panda 2 is one of the best animated features of 2011 and one of the best pictures of the year that I’ve seen so far. Admittedly my plate of 2011 isn’t exactly overflowing as of yet, but I have seen most of the major blockbusters. Kung Fu Panda 2 is as good a “cartoon” as it is an action movie, presenting evolved characters that we care about doing things that amaze us.

Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, the film has the distinct honour of being the highest-grossing movie directed by a female. With Guillermo del Toro on board as executive producer and the hand of Charlie Kaufman (according to Variety) in the writing department, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a paw up from the immensely enjoyable first one.

The film opens by introducing us to the peacock clan in ancient China. Of course, this is an alternate China in which the animals are working out their lives as we humans do in our world. There’s a lot of fighting and clans and stuff, of course. Back in animal China, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), one of the peacock clan, obsesses over fireworks and wants to weaponize them. He is eventually exiled and vows revenge.

Some three decades later, Po (Jack Black) and the Furious Five are busy protecting the Valley of Peace in their usual butt-kicking way. One day, Po is informed by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) that he needs to find inner peace. He sets out on this quest but is soon drawn into conflict with Lord Shen after it’s discovered that the evil peacock has, in fact, weaponized fireworks and is trying to conquer China. There’s also a storyline about Po’s original parentage neatly wrapped in.

The plot is incredibly intricate and, yes, meaningful. The story about Po’s real parents doesn’t feel tacked on and actually blends with the main tale in a surprising way, adding an additional layer of motivation to certain characters. The panda’s conversations with his goose father Mr. Ping (James Hong) take on special meaning as they build to a nice little surprise at the end of the movie.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is not simply a reworking of the first picture done in a different sauce, either. It is an extension of the universe, one that boldly ventures out to not only outdo the action sequences of the first movie but increase the emotional attachments to the characters. It also incorporates other styles of animation beyond 3D CGI, utilizing old-school 2D magic when it packs the right expressive punch.

The voice actors are stupendous, with Oldman stealing every scene he’s in as the bad guy peacock. Black is the perfect voice for Po, while Hoffman adds some good nature to Shifu. We also are blessed with characters like Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). Oh, and yes that is Jean-Claude Van Damme as Master Croc.

The film obviously screened in 3D when it was inhabiting theatres, as most new big movies are bound to do these days. I watched it in 2D and was captivated by the vibrant colours and massive scope of the whole thing. The action sequences are simply breathtaking, with the final act’s excitement proving among the year’s most exhilarating pieces of work I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is everything a big summer blockbuster should be. It sizzles with liveliness and features some of the most electric animation of the year. It is a fast-paced, wild ride of a movie that still pauses between slo-mo explosions to make sense and offer us things to care about.

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