Kung Fu Panda has gone from being just one very good movie to being a sprightly animated franchise. The original, starring Jack Black as the titular warrior Po, was an expertly done feature that leapt well over my expectations. Now we have Kung Fu Panda 2, which has enough of the same fun and visual excitement to reward all who waited for it to arrive, even if it also loses some of the first movie's strengths.

Po's challenge in this film is to defeat Lord Shen, an evil peacock who plans to use his barrage of cannons to slay kung fu masters and rule China. Shen also ties in with Po’s origin, which Po must discover and reconcile with if he is to master inner peace (between dizzying and thrilling action sequences, naturally). Shen is voiced by Gary Oldman, who plays the part smoothly but restrains himself too much. It's better than his excessive turn in Quest for Camelot years ago, but it definitely feels like he could have done more to make this villain distinctive.

Po, on the other hand, remains as likable as ever. In both movies, Black makes us laugh and empathize with Po by joyfully expressing Po’s giddy happiness. Po is still thunderstruck by the fact that he has become this great warrior and that he can call his heroes his friends (exemplified by a funny slow-motion declaration during the final battle). Po’s conflict in this movie, which gives him a tragic past like Luke Skywalker or Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender, is an interesting extension from the first film, but it comes and goes and does not completely harmonize with the Lord Shen thread. Even so, Po is given plenty of challenges for him to conquer in his charming underdog fashion.

To showcase its hero, Kung Fu Panda 2 forgoes some of the character dynamics that enlivened the first film. Most missed is Shifu, the crusty kung fu master voiced by Dustin Hoffman. Having conquered his inner discord in the last film, he only appears at the beginning and end of the film and mostly just lays the groundwork for Po’s development. The Furious Five, Po’s fellow warriors, have more screen time than in the original, but we still don’t know much about them. We see more of certain characters and less of others, with Tigress (Angelina Jolie) remaining the most prominent fighter. The increase in team fighting gives us a lot of clever fight choreography, but we still do not have much reason to care for them as much as we do for Po.

This film does not skimp on the action, but it’s a pleasure to watch it brought to life with such stunning animation. Some of the fights are edited with that rapid speed I’ve complained about before, but it does not happen nearly often enough to be problematic. The rest of the time, the finely staged, lit and textured animation creates truly exhilarating spectacles. (One highlight features the heroes scaling a collapsing tower.) I think that with the martial arts in both Kung Fu Panda movies and with the flying sequences in last year’s How to Train Your Dragon, DreamWorks is becoming America’s best studio for animated action.

The excess of action means we don’t see as many scenes of the beautiful terrain as before, but the space between fights does give us some startling sights. Po’s dreams are visualized with an unusual mix of animation styles. These flashbacks are in 2-D animation (I expect it was done without paper) until Po’s clouded view is illuminated and the vision switches back to computer animation. This variety is a boon in a time where hand-drawn animation is trying to make a comeback. I hope the artistic merit of this utilization encourages more studios to reinvest in 2-D animation.

Kids are certain to enjoy the action in Kung Fu Panda 2, even if they might fidget during the dramatic bits. Adults who wouldn't feel embarrassed about seeing it (especially if they saw the first one) will find it has more thrilling set pieces than Thor and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides combined. Part of me is wary about telling DreamWorks to bring us more Panda movies after seeing how far they stretched out the Shrek, but Kung Fu Panda 2 gives me hope that DreamWorks can pull off a satisfying franchise with this affable character.


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