In 2008, when Kung Fu Panda came out, I remember saying that it looked like one of the worst children's movies I ever saw. It looked insulting to Asians, a mere merchandising vehicle, and annoy since it was just as we started to get over-saturated with Jack Black. Despite many people telling me that it's good and that I would enjoy it, I have yet to sit down and watch it. So I brought my co-host Katie's 7-year-old daughter with me to the screening so that she could fill me in on what I needed to know from the first one. Since 7-year-olds can't really do a great job of recounting something like a movie from three years ago with great detail, I didn't learn too much; however that had no effect on the fact that I enjoyed its sequel immensely!
Since I never saw the first one I can't tell you if this picks up where the last one left off. What I can tell you is that it gets off to a relatively slow beginning. There isn't anything particularly funny or action-packed until you're almost a third of the way into the film, which is about the original Kung Fu crew going to a far-off city to stop an evil peacock from destroying all of Asia. But once the plot picks up and the adventure begins it's nothing but a fun, exciting ball that keeps building in size and speed.
I know that the tradition for animated movies is to pad them with a ton of celebrity voices since doing voice work is easy, quick and it's a way to get big names to endorse your silly kid movie but this is an impressive pedigree! Returning from the first besides Black is Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Dustin Hoffman and the always funny David Cross (Men in Black II, HBO's Mr. Show). The list gets even better with new characters for the sequel voiced by Gary Oldman (JFK, the Harry Potter series), Jean-Claude Van Damme (JCVD, Bloodsport) and Michelle Yeoh (Sunshine, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon). These are all small, backseat performances compared to Black's but that's totally fine when you look at the subtly of the whole picture. The only standout show-stealer is Gary Oldman who plays the villainous peacock named Lord Shen. He rarely gives a bad performance, even when he's bad movies like Red Riding Hood, and has a never ending rolodex of character voices he can do to make you go "That was Gary Oldman?!?" when the credits roll.
To me, the most impressive thing about this movie was how the action gave me goosebumps and the ending gave me tears. This is probably the best animated film since Toy Story 3 and certainly the one with the most heart. There are scenes in the movie where the action is so well executed and directed by comic book nerd Jennifer Yuh (Kung Fu Panda, Spawn) that you're delivered the same emotion you get from watching a great action sequence from an adult, live-action film. Her use of slow motion as a homage to other kung fu films is not on-the-nose or pandering, it actually makes the scenes better. In addition to that, it builds to an emotional climax that impressed me to the point where I hid a tear or two behind my 3D glasses.
Kung Fu Panda 2 is so good that it makes me feel foolish that I ever said those things about the original. I plan on watching the first one as soon as I can, but if I had to guess, Kung Fu Panda 2 has done what few movies, whether they're for kids or adults, can pull off...it's better than the original! Plus it did it with the uphill battle of having Jack Black in it.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (Rated PG)
Gavin Grade: A-