The Review: Pop quiz, hot shot. Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman were the leads in the original Kung Fu Panda, but there was also a Furious Five made up of other animals. Can you name the actors that portrayed Tigress, Mantis, Monkey, Viper and Crane? No real prizes for Angelina Jolie or Seth Rogen, but give yourself a point if you got Jackie Chan as Monkey or Lucy Liu and frankly, if you managed to identify David Cross as Crane, then you don’t get out much, do you? But this is the way of the Dreamworks animation. The likes of Shrek, Madagascar and Monsters vs Aliens have relied on famous voice casts where the characters are a thin reflection of the voice actors playing them, to the point you could almost believe it was the actors themselves in an animal suit were the characters not so convincingly portrayed by the CGI. So when you pay for Jack Black, he might look black and white and be even tubbier than in real life, but it’s basically still the same Jack Black you’re getting.
Which might make you wonder how it would be possible to spin a sequel out of the material already woven by the original? Kung Fu Panda tread some familiar Dreamworks ground, the consistent moral in their material being that you should be true to yourself, and one that Po the Dragon Warrior had learned quite well by the end of the first film. But there were some obvious seeds planted in the original, not least the fact that Po the panda’s dad is, well, a goose. When Po starts having flashbacks mid-fight, there’s obviously a need for closure, but little does he realise how wrapped up that will be with new enemy Lord Shen (Gary Oldman)?
If there’s one thing that’s been largely absent from most of the Dreamworks animations, then it’s the depth of emotion that their contemporaries such as Pixar manage to work in so effortlessly, and while the Shrek movies have made a few attempts, they’re generally pale imitations. Not any more, though, as Kung Fu Panda 2 succeeds admirably in expanding upon the original story but in the process adds further layers of depth and pathos to the story. Somehow, it also manages to drop in even more famous voices – as well as the major players from the original mentioned above, the likes of Dennis Haysbert, Michelle Yeoh and even Jean Claude Van-Damme all get their moment in the spotlight. Jack Black does well, but once again the weak link is Angelina Jolie; more effective here than in the original, she’s still the most anonymous of the voice cast, but there’s enough good work here that you don’t feel let down and Oldman is especially enjoyable as the petulant peacock bent on world domination.
So a good meaty story, with plenty of feeling, but the other think that made the original Kung Fu panda such a standout was just that – the kung fu. Thankfully, this sequel lives up to the standard set by the original and features scene after scene of top quality family-friendly fighting – enough to get the kids imitating on the playground but not enough to get them taking each other’s heads off. The quality of the animation and the direction is also easily the equal, if not an improvement, on the original, and the flashback sequences are especially well handled and distinct. All in all, this second instalment is easily a match for the first and maintains a high standard, so late scenes potentially setting up a second sequel excite rather than disappointing. Let’s hope the standard maintained by these first two Pandas can be maintained by those that follow.
Why see it at the cinema: There’s a fantastic sense of scale and both the set-pieces and the fights don’t disappoint. This will delight kids of all ages, even those into their mid-to-late thirties, and there’s enough for any age range to ensure they don’t get too fidgety.
Why I didn’t see it in 3D: A scheduling conflict meant that the only way I could squeeze three films into an afternoon was to forego the 3D option for this film and stick to 2D instead. Based on what I know of 3D and its inability to carry darkly lit films with lots of cutting and fast paced action sequences, you have my sympathy if you end up at the 3D version.
The Score: 8/10