The first Kung Fu Panda became a well-deserved success for all the right reasons: it boasted a good story that stayed true to the tropes of martial-arts movies, the animation was lively and adorable, the action was choreographed to maximize thrills and laughs, and the voice actors, especially Dustin Hoffman and Jack Black, were charming. Thankfully, the sequel measures up in every single way, giving DreamWorks a franchise that can compare artistically with Pixar.
The story begins with the panda Po (Jack Black) enjoying life as a Dragon Master and keeping the Valley of Peace safe. He's informed by his master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), that the next phase of his training focuses on achieving inner peace, something that eludes Po because he's unsure what happened to his biological mom and dad. His training is interrupted by Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), an evil peacock who intends to rule all of China with the metal-shooting cannon he's invented -- a weapon powerful enough to destroy kung fu. Po and the Furious Five set off to stop Shen, but the mission grows complicated when Po discovers that his nemesis knows the truth about Po's past.
Kung Fu Panda 2 smartly bypasses rehashing any of the first movie; the filmmakers know the characters are so clearly defined that you don't need to have seen the first film to understand their personalities and motivations. That's true not only of central figures like Po and Shifu, but also for many of the secondary characters like Po's adoptive dad and Tigress (Angelina Jolie) -- the bravest member of the team. Armed with an understanding of the characters, the filmmakers waste no time getting us into the story.
Visually the film is a delight, not just because of the cuddly character designs or because the animation styles vary during flashbacks and dream sequences. No, the real coup is that this is one of the only family films in the current wave of 3D features to use the format well -- meaning they don't make a big deal about it. Every once in a while, especially in the fight scenes, something unexpectedly flies at you, but otherwise they use the stereoscopic effects in order to give the images depth -- a trait they use to humorous effect during dizzying rooftop chases.
All of this is in support of a screenplay that offers up a rather traditional take on the tried-and-true formula of the hero's journey. However, the martial-arts film is a genre that easily supports such well-worn ground, so we never mind going along for the familiar ride -- especially when the entertaining action sequences are augmented with so many laughs along the way. David Cross and Seth Rogen are both seasoned comedians, as well as animated film veterans, and they expertly twist every line to elicit a giggle.
The cast and crew obviously cared about this movie -- the stylistically daring director Guillermo del Toro is credited as a creative consultant -- and their efforts blossom. Kung Fu Panda 2 achieves something few sequels to blockbusters ever do -- it stays true to a successful formula without seeming tired, cynical, or lazy.