It almost seems like there is a set amount of quality out there for Dreamworks Animation and Pixar to wrestle over, and Dreamworks is managing to tip the scale their way in fits and starts over the past couple of years. The first Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon can stand up with the better Pixar films, while Pixar itself seems to have gone off-track with sequel-itis.
If Pixar is determined to go full-throttle on sequels (as Toy Story 3 and the upcoming Cars 2 and Monsters University would seem to indicate), they could do a lot worse than Kung Fu Panda 2. It's a solid sequel to a great animated feature, and while I don't think it quite has the same emotional impact as the first film, it has the same great humor and fantastic character and action animation.
Now firmly ensconced as the Dragon Warrior and companion of the Furious Five, Po (Jack Black) is a Kung Fu superhero and champion of the Valley of Peace. After a beautiful intro sequence introduces us to the sinister peacock Shen (Gary Oldman), it's only a matter of time before Po and friends are tasked by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) with stopping Shen's plan to use gunpowder to render kung fu irrelevant and conquer all of China.
Complicating this is the fact that Po recognizes the symbols on the armor of Shen's wolf minions as an enigmatic touchstone to memories of his childhood and the loss of his parents. When he asks his father, Mr. Ping (James Hong) about his origins, we are treated to a story of adoption both humorous and touching. The animation of the character of Mr. Ping is fantastic, especially considering he gets none of the flashy kung-fu sequences other characters shine in, and is entirely a character performance.
Those kung-fu sequences are as fantastic and thrilling as those in the first film were, particularly any moments in which Shen (Gary Oldman) is on screen. His movements are strange and beautiful, his deadliness as clear as his borderline madness.
The comedy is strong, with well-placed goofiness breaking up serious character moments. One of the best involves Po delivering pithy, dramatic lines from slightly too far away for anyone to hear him clearly.
If the sequel falls a little short of the original, it's due at least in part to the very diminished role of Hoffman's Master Shifu, who barely shows up after a beautiful sequence early on. I also missed the incredible performance of Ian McShane as Tai Lung, the unfortunately deceased villain of the original. Still, Oldman is very good, and the supporting voices of Angelina Jolie (Tigress), David Cross (Crane), Seth Rogan (Mantis), Lucy Liu (Viper), and Jackie Chan (Monkey) continue to please. Jean-Claude Van Damme is stunt cast as Master Croc, with no more than a handful of lines, but Victor Garber and Dennis Haysbert give excellent vocal performances as Master Thundering Rhino and Master Storming Ox, respectively.