“Long ago in ancient China, the peacocks ruled over Gongmen City. They brought great joy and prosperity to the city, for they had invented fireworks. But their son, Lord Shen, saw darker power in the fireworks. What had brought color and joy could also bring darkness and destruction. Shen’s troubled parents consulted a soothsayer. She foretold that if he continued down this dark path, he would be defeated by a warrior of black and white.”
We all know who that warrior is, don’t we?
In 2008 Jack Black’s Kung Fu Panda took the world by storm. The computer-animated hit from Dreamworks brought in about $700 million at the worldwide box office. There have been direct-to-video sequels and a Nickelodeon cartoon series since. But none of those minor efforts have been quite what the fans have been waiting for these long three years. That wait ended at the box office on May 27th, 2011 when Kung Fu Panda 2 slammed its way to a $50 million weekend, even up against another long-awaited sequel in The Hangover II (which did pull in twice as much dough). And while the numbers didn’t quite reach those of the first, it’s a boatload of money that pretty much guarantees that we haven’t seen the last of Po and the Furious Five.
“…The young lord set out to change his fate. But what he did next only sealed it. Shen returned to his parents full of pride. But in their faces he saw only horror. He was banished from the city forever. But Shen swore revenge. Someday he would return, and all of China would bow at his feet.”
It seems that day has arrived. Shen (Oldman) has built giant cannons with his technology, and he now has weapons that threaten to destroy Kung Fu forever. He sends his wolf minions to scour the country for any metal they can find so that he can build more weapons. One of these packs runs into Po and The Furious Five. The wolves are defeated, but Po sees a symbol on the leader that gives him flashbacks to when he was a child. In those visions he sees his mother and begins to question where he came from.
Ping (Hong) finally admits that he’s not Po’s real father (duh) and reveals how he was left in a vegetable crate. Now Po and his team must defeat Shen before he destroys all Kung Fu forever. But he can’t summon the inner peace he needs to win unless he can come to grips with his own past.
Kung Fu Panda 2 has all of the elements that made the first such a solid animated feature. While it can’t really capture the charm of that first underdog story, it manages to introduce a back-story to Po which serves not only as a nice story element, but as an inner conflict for Po to overcome. The tale is stronger than we usually get from these kinds of features, particularly with a sequel. It might have been easier to sit on the huge success of the first film, secure in the knowledge that flocks would come to see whatever they threw up on a screen. But this film looks to the future of the entire franchise and gives us material that strengthens the overall mythology while delivering another satisfying adventure along for the ride. Like Po himself, the filmmakers needed to push forward, working harder than ever. I think you’ll agree they did that, and more.
All of the original cast returns, and that’s crucial. The characters are far more fleshed out than is customary on recent animated features, and the voice cast is a huge part of that. They have infused these characters with their own personalities. No where is this more true than with Jack Black himself. Angelina Jolie returns as Tigress, but both the voice and character are quieter and far more laid back. I’d say this character has grown the most since the first film. We get returns from Dustin Hoffman as the hassled Master Shifu. Jackie Chan, David Cross, Seth Rogan and Lucy Liu continue to round out the Furious Five.
There are some wonderful additions to the voice cast and characters. Gary Oldman is marvelous as the new bad guy, Shen. Unfortunately, I’m not at all in love with this particular character design. Shen looks far too feminine for Oldman’s voice and doesn’t strike me as the most intimidating of villains. Oldman manages to make up for it in a large part, but I still think it’s the weakest character design of the franchise. Danny McBride provides the voice of the wolf boss, who is a far more satisfying and menacing character. Three new animal masters are introduced also with talented voices. Victor Garber gets very little time as Master Rhino, while the commanding voice of Dennis Haysbert brings the bulky Master Ox to life. Rounding out the new trilogy is Jean-Claude Van Damme as Master Croc. Martial arts actress Michelle Yeoh doesn’t get to kick any behind as the Soothsayer, but it’s still a great fit.
It’s not just the voice cast that gives a stellar performance here. This continues to be one of the best animated features ever in design. The film rivals anything from the folks at Pixar. There is more detail in each frame than you’ll even have time to appreciate. The animation delivers some of the most photo-realistic images you’ll find. The animation crew took a trip to China to get a feel for the locations and styles. They managed to pull it off just about flawlessly. Even the traditional rough spots like water look about as good as it gets. It might have been tempting to cut corners and get this film out to grab as much of that cash as they could, but Dreamworks waited and did it right. The result is one of the most lavish computer environments you’ll have seen to date. The flashbacks are done in the style we’ve become familiar with in the franchise. It’s standard animation with a style that reminds me a lot of the Sly Cooper video game series. It works quite nicely, as does the entire film.
Kung Fu Panda 2 is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25 mbps. This is a very rich high-definition image presentation. Colors are bright and vivid. Textures are a product of both craftsmanship in the animation and care in the Blu-ray transfer. The film was originally in 3D, but I don’t think you’ll feel like you missed anything here. There is already a dimensional feel to the image that works about as perfectly as you could ask. Black levels are deep and flawless. You’re really going to love this near-perfect image.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is listed as 7.1 but I could not get that in my receiver. I did get it on one of the extra features. What I did get was certainly solid enough. Everything arrives with crystal clarity and plenty of dynamic range. The subs provide just enough push to fill the whole thing out rather nicely. Dialog comes through quite nicely, indeed. The surrounds offer plenty of ear candy, and the entire experience is a rather immersive one.
There are a couple of Blu-ray exclusive viewing modes. There’s a Trivia Track and Animator’s Corner that provides additional material during the film. A Commentary Track is included. There’s a Chinese language tutorial. There is also an interactive map where you can join the animation crew on their trip to China. There are also a couple of games and a DVD and Digital Copy version of the film.
Kung Fu Panda – Legends Of Awesomeness Episode: (23:50) Television episode Has-Been Hero.
Secrets Of The Masters: (23:00) This short gives you the back-story for Masters Ox, Rhino and Croc.
Kickin’ It With The Cast: (12:42) Join the voice cast in the recording studio.
Deleted Scenes: (4:21) There are three with a handy play-all and introductions by director Jennifer Yuh.
Panda Stories: (7:44) This is a PSA-style conservation feature on real pandas.
There’s plenty here for both children and adults. This is the right way to do this kind of a sequel, and I trust that if they continue to exhibit patience and hard work, there’s more to come. The final minute as much as promises us there is more to the story. Can’t wait. “There’s got to be more.”