Jennifer Yuh Nelson | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG
The first Kung Fu Panda was a surprise, at least to me. It sounded like a daft idea voiced by a cast that did anything but endear me to the project. That’s not quite fair: a lot of the cast are good, it’s Jack Black as the lead that was putting me off. Which was also unfair, because he’s done some good stuff. Look, we’re not here to talk about the first film much — the point is, it turned out to be really good fun. It did deservedly well, and so, unsurprisingly, a sequel was commissioned.
Problem is, Kung Fu Panda wasn’t really set up to be a franchise. It told the story of a no-hope wannabe who managed to attain the thing he wanted and become a Big Damn Hero. Hurrah! But with his training to be such a hero covered in the first film, and the big evil suitably vanquished, this sequel begins from the less dramatically exciting standpoint of him just being a hero in a time of relative peace. And so a new villain and a new evil plan is concocted to keep our characters busy, but without the reliably heartwarming character arc I already described, it doesn’t have the same soul as the first film.
There are other ways the sequel could make up for that. Sadly, I think it falls short on every count. Firstly, it’s not as funny. As a family cartoon it is, essentially, a comedy, and so not being funny is a distinct shortcoming. Nor is it as exciting. One of the several ways in which the first film surprised me was its detailed, fast, thrilling fight sequences. Panda 2 still has plenty of action, but it didn’t grab me in the same way as the first film’s. Even some of the good ideas didn’t quite come together to create something as memorable as they promised.
Thirdly, it has Gary Oldman as a villain. That should be wondrous, but it isn’t. He’s fine. Gary Oldman villains aren’t fine, they’re classic characters. But no, this one’s just fine. I guess he needed some cash.
Finally, it’s not as beautiful to look at. “Beautiful animation” was not a concept regularly associated with CG ‘toons, the very technological nature of the process keeping a kind of barrier to something that purely looked gorgeous. It can create all sorts of wonderful things, be that realistic movement or fur or water, or faces as malleable and expressive as anything sketched in pencil or moulded from clay, but genuine beauty seemed to be a step too far. Such perceptions have been steadily broken down in the past five or so years, thanks to films such as Ratatouille and Kung Fu Panda, but this sequel doesn’t reach such lofty heights. It’s by no means bad to look at, far from it — it contains all the detail and expression you could desire — but, one or two moments aside, it doesn’t have the same prettiness of its predecessor.
That’s my overriding impression of Kung Fu Panda 2: it’s not bad, but it’s not a patch on the first one. I’ve seen other reviews that assert the opposite, so perhaps I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind; or perhaps a significant chunk of the first film’s appeal was down to it surprising me, and this isn’t any worse but had higher expectations. One day I’ll re-watch them both and gain a more certain conclusion on that point.
Hopefully the inevitable third entry (this ends with a very obvious setup for where the series will go next) can regain some more of the first film’s magic. As things stand, I found Panda 2 to be a fairly decent 90 minutes — though, saying that, a slightly slow one — but not one that came close to the numerous joys of its forebear. Disappointing.
Kung Fu Panda 2 begins on Sky Movies Premiere today, Friday 4th May, at 10am and 8pm, and continues at various times over the next fortnight.