I confess I was concerned about Kung Fu Panda 2.  I was expecting the good things the trailers showed, and it had the same excellent production values as the first film, but still… I’m usually not big on sequels, and feel principled about it because they’re usually all about cashing in on the first film’s popularity.  And more often than not they are sadly inferior to the original film.  While I can name many wonderful exceptions to this observation, they are hardly enough to reduce my skepticism.

The other thing that mystified me when I heard about Kung Fu Panda 2 was that, if I assumed that the marketers were trying to appeal to fans of the first film, why did they continue to market the film as a Jack Black comedy?  The first movie, even though it was advertised as a Jack Black comedy really wasn’t.  In fact a lot of viewers were surprised when they realized the plot and the action was done completely straight, so why should potential viewers of the second film be misdirected the same way?

I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps we should refine our definition of comedy.  What makes a comedy in truth?  Is it a matter of plot?  If a movie is very funny and has lots of jokes, yet has a straight plot, is it a comedy?  Because if it is, than a movie like American Werewolf in London is a comedy.   We can argue about mixed genres, and what the difference is between a comic action film and an action comedy?  I think I would argue that it is all a matter of plot.  Therefore the Kung Fu Panda franchise, while indeed very funny, is not an actual comedy because the actual plot is serious and it is part of a real genre, Chinese Wu-Xia, is not actually spoofed.

Having said all that, I enjoyed Kung Fu Panda 2 immensely.  I’ve had a problem with animated films lately; I feel that I’ve been letting my professional interest focus my attention on the technical and artistic minutiae.  This process seems to prevent me from enjoying the actual film.  I definitely did not have this problem this time: the film drew me in completely.

This time the story was even more ambitious than in the first film.  A minor spoiler is that this time the threat is not limited to the Valley of Peace setting of the first film.  The villain provides a threat to all of China, but – additional spoiler – his introduction of cannons provides a threat to Kung Fu itself.

Once again the franchise does a wonderful job of presenting an idealized fantasy version of medieval China, both technically and artistic.  The near-perfect portrayal ranges from beautiful serene shots of sacred glades that rival any in a serious Wu Xia film (such as Yimou Zhang ‘s Hero and House of Flying Daggers) to the hustle and bustle of a capitol city.  These scenes are even more impressive when you realize just how much processing power they took to create.

All of this gives the characters a great setting to play in.  Like the rest of the look of the film they are very well designed and the animation does them justice.  With a variety of choices ranging from incredible subtle moments of tenderness to the incredibly choreographed action scenes one of my favorite scenes is the opening battle between Po the Panda, the Furious Five, and a gang of bandits who have invaded a village of musicians.  In the fight a rabbit musician keeps getting in the way of the combatants while simultaneously accompanying the action on his instrument.  But this scene is as nothing compared to the climax of the second act when the heroes escape an army of archers by running up a collapsing pagoda.

Along with the excellent animation I have to give compliments to the voice actors.  I think that voice acting is vastly underappreciated.  I find that a good voice actor is allowed to provide a huge amount of range that they seemingly would not be allowed in normal situations, making voice-acting closer to theater acting than film acting.

As in the first film Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman played their roles to perfection.  For me though the best part of this film was Gary Oldman’s performance as the peacock, Lord Shen.  Oldman has spent a good portion of his career playing the “Evil Brit” but his Lord Shen is on altogether another level.  His Lord Shen is fastidious, neurotic and possibly slightly OCD, he dominates every scene he is in, indeed the whole plot is dominated by his paranoia and ambition.

All in all, I look forward to watching Kung Fu Panda 2 in more detail and I consider it an excellent addition to DreamWorks continuing animation renaissance.