Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Review: Kung Fu Panda 2

Rating: PG 
Runtime: 91 min

When I think of animation I instantly picture John Lasseter and the gang at Pixar. Granted, Dreamworks Animation frequently competes as its rival, with occasional monster box office winners such as Shrek and Kung Fu Panda (earning a whopping $915m and $631m, respectively), yet often trail in consistency and quality. I'll honestly admit I didn't think much of Kung Fu Panda. Aimed towards a younger demographic and void of any genuine adult laughs, I was content to stick with the likes of Toy Story and Up.

Kung Fu Panda 2 however, is a completely different bowl of noodles. For one, it's thoroughly enjoyable. Going in with such mediocre expectations, it quickly becomes clear that the metaphorical bar has been significantly raised. The story follows on from Po (Jack Black), having defeated the evil snow leopard Tai Lung, thus affirming his place in folklore as the Dragon Warrior. Now a Kung Fu Master and accompanied by the Furious Five - Tigress (Jolie), Mantis (Rogen), Monkey (Chan), Viper (Liu) and Crane (Cross) - Po fulfills his duties as he defends villagers from pot-stealing wolf bandits. Whilst fending off such foes he inexplicably succumbs to a mysterious symbol their leader brandishes on his armour. Cue nightmarish visions of a young Po, which leads him to question his Father, Mr Ping (James Hong), about where he really comes from and who he really is. Meanwhile, vengeful peacock, Shen (Gary Oldman), enters the narrative in hope of averting a foretold prophecy that claims a 'warrior of black and white' shall defeat him in his attempts to rule the country.

The story treads the familiar Kung Fu genre ground. It's a pastiche, as Po is forced to trace his origins and  original home village and parentals, in order to overcome his past that begins to hinder him. However, by no means is KFP2 a serious or harrowing tale: occasional heart felt and touching moments define it as a comedy.

What is surprising is how improvements are made in almost every department. The detailed animation and crisp digital 3-D show a visual improvement, yet on a subtle level: Textures look that bit better, including Po's fur and general character attention is more appeasing. The plot and character arcs are structured in a competent manner, showing progressive development that complements the story. The script is a simple story arc with a coming-of-age tale, as Po attempts to 'find himself' (wherever that may lead him). It builds into a compelling journey, which introduces new characters- including antagonist, Shen- as well as some polished set pieces and beautiful settings. As for entertainment value, the script is much tighter than its predecessor, revelling in numerous laughs and witty one-liners as the talented cast raise the quality a notch. The aforementioned array of voice actors collectively nail the tone of their characters: Dustin Hoffman, Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride and one Jean-Claude Van Damme all contribute to great effect.

Many positives shine through, but whilst the focus of the story remains firmly on course, its progression does wobble a little during the latter third as we are prematurely set up with an obvious climax. This results in some predictable plot structure to draw out a foreseen conclusion. However, it doesn't feel tiresome and, at a mere 90 minutes, saves itself when we do reach the finale, enveloping some nicely animated action and fight scenes.

Kung Fu Panda 2 doesn't take itself too seriously, as it tries to connect on a deeper level at times. It succeeds in throwing a tender moment in at the final stages, yet remains a funny, light-hearted and generally entertaining picture. Engaging and filled with likable protagonists, this sequel pleasingly outdoes its former installment, but of course there's still a long way to go to reach the heights of the mighty Pixar.