Review: Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

I haven't been impressed with most of the non-Pixar children's animated films that have come to dominate cinemas in the past few years (lest you think I exaggerate with the word "dominate", this year alone has had Gnomeo and Juliet, Rango, Mars Needs Moms, Hop, Rio, Hookwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, and has yet to see the release of Cars 2, Puss in Boots, and Happy Feet 2). Too be fair, I haven't seen any of this year's crop (I have heard good things about Rango), but for the most part I have found such past offerings to be at best unimaginative and dull, and at worst inappropriate and aggressively ugly. Dreamworks' Shrek series has been a huge box office boon, while peddling sexual innuendo and mind-numbing and hyper-active action in the guise of revisionist fairy tales. It's not the revisionism that I object to so much as the idea that children's films need to contain big name actors and jokes that are over the heads of children in order to pull in the coveted four-quadrant demographics. Films like Shrek (2000), to say nothing of some of its imitators, are also just simply unpleasant to look at. Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda films still suffer from the surfeit of celebrity voices, but in contrast I appreciate their relative lack of pop-culture references and innuendo. Furthermore, the films have a pleasantly distinct animation style and a compelling world that they have created for their simple stories of a chubby panda bear who learns to become a kung fu master.

Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) tells the story the character Po (Jack Black) from the first film, now established as the Dragon Warrior alongside the pantheon of the Furious Five (Tiger, Snake, Monkey, Crane, and Mantis) searching for the elusive "inner peace" that will help him take his kung fu to the next level and at the same time stop an egomaniacal peacock (Gary Oldman) who has invented gunpowder from conquering China. Finding inner peace will involve facing his past and learning about his panda heritage. The film is fast-paced, goofy, but strangely easy-going. Some of the funniest bits involve Po's noodle-serving adopted goose father, but it's a nice relationship and representation of parental love.

One of the nice things about the series is that they actually take the kung fu semi-seriously. The Furious Five take their namesakes from actual kung fu fighting styles, and the action is actually coherent and fun to see, taking advantage of the animal characters physical forms for both function and comedy. The use of hand-drawn animation is also a nice touch: both an introduction to the story of the peacock, Shen, told in paper-cut out style, and Po's dreams about his birth-parents, which appear in hand-drawn animation style, remind both of the variety of animation available to storytellers apart from computer generated and of how appealing the character designs themselves are, as they look good in any style.

Kung Fu Panda 2 suffers from being a bit slight for most adult audiences, but is there really a problem with giving children entertainment that is made for them? Adults might balk at the violence, but kung fu packages its cool moves with a philosophy of self-control and restraint that makes it preferable to many other film's haphazard and frenetic action. Judging from the reactions of the children in the audience and sitting next to me, Kung Fu Panda 2 just might be one of the better bets for children's entertainment this summer.

6 out of 10

Note: I saw Kung Fu Panda 2 in non-3D. There are certain moments where the film is clearly geared toward things sticking out from the screen, but nothing is really lost, and perhaps much is gained, by opting not to see it in the 3D format.

Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Directed by Jennifer Yuh; written by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger; featuring the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman, Dustin Hoffman, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Jackie Chan.