Brad Bird, genius director of "The Iron Giant," "Ratatouille," and "The Incredibles," is fond of saying that animation isn't a genre, it's an art form. His point is that there can be animated versions of a wide array of cinematic genres – thrillers, say, or maybe westerns or even romantic comedies. He's right, of course; it's just that most animated movies that aren't made by Bird's compatriots at Pixar aim for that broad, middle-of-the-road buddy comedy bulls-eye. Which is why, when DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda" was released in 2008, it was sort of shocking. Not because it was particularly revolutionary looking, and not because its narrative pushed any kind of boundaries. No, it felt genuinely fresh because "Kung Fu Panda" actually attempted to be a full-on, balls-to-the-walls martial arts action movie. And it mostly succeeded.
Three short years later, the anthropomorphic, ass-kicking animals are back in "Kung Fu Panda 2," and it's amped up the action quotient further, which is both a blessing and a curse.
In a shadow puppet-like prologue, the backstory is set for "Kung Fu Panda 2" (which once carried the silly, superficial subtitle "The Kaboom of Doom") – that of a villainous peacock emperor (Gary Oldman) who wanted to harness the power of fireworks (i.e. gunpowder) for evil. After a Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) predicts that a black-and-white hero will bring down the bird, the peacock brutally murders all of the pandas in the realm and is promptly punished for his crimes. (Ah yes – genocide before the title card, this is a family movie!) The movie proper begins with the peacock amassing a large army and a Death Star-like super-weapon to bring China (and kung fu) to its knees, while our hero Po (Jack Black), deals with his newfound power as the dragon master, as well as a more existential crisis.
All of the voice talent from the first film (including Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen, David Cross, and James Hong), as well as a few new characters (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Victor Garber, Dennis Haysbert and Danny McBride, as a villainous wolf) make appearances. Stylistically, both the characters and the action sequences (under the direction of Jennifer Yuh Nelson) have been pushed further, incorporating elements of traditional Chinese folk art with kung fu movie posters and flashes of glittery Japanese animation. This time around, the action is in 3D, of course. But unlike most 3D movies, the added dimensionality actually enhances what is going on in the film; it's probably the best use of 3D in an animated movie since last spring's "How to Train Your Dragon."
But the action sequences, all glittery, exploding fireworks and metallic feathers slicing through the air, as dazzling as they are, become somewhat tiresome by the time the movie ends its incredibly busy third act. It's hard to complain about sequences as beautifully choreographed and rendered as these are, but it becomes a little overwhelming, especially when Nelson is tasked with balancing the twin storylines of the kung fu masters battling for supremacy, and the quieter subplot about Po searching for the parents that abandoned him. Hoffman's Yoda-like red panda urges our hero to find inner peace, implying that a Zen state of mind will help him become a better warrior. You'd think that someone making the movie (which now includes creative consultant and executive producer Guillermo del Toro) would have followed that advice and let the movie breathe a little bit, especially when they're trying to hit those emotional notes. Instead, barely a moment passes before another action sequence erupts, drowning out the one thing it should have been amplifying – its heart.
Still, "Kung Fu Panda 2" is mostly a kicky joy. The animation has been given a deeper, more brooding level of atmosphere (again, aided by the extra oomph of the 3D), and the story (by original writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger) is considerably darker and more intense this time around. The first film was much goofier, with a more frothy sense of humor; this time around, issues like imperialism and the metal threat of industrial revolution sit alongside spookier, more personal things like the death of parents and, of course, scary wolves that sound like Danny McBride. Nothing ever feels too oppressive, however, with "Kung Fu Panda 2" feeling like the slightly rushed, slightly melancholy middle chapter of a larger saga (the film's cliffhanger ending certainly suggests further adventures of Po and the gang).
Brad Bird was right in saying that animation is an art form and should be able to accommodate all sorts of genres, but what "Kung Fu Panda 2" should have kept in mind is that the action movie genre elements shouldn't overwhelm the film's core emotionality, no matter how cool those action elements might be. [B]