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Years ago Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), heir of the peacock clan that ruled Gongmen City in ancient China, sought to harness the power of fireworks as a weapon with which to rule the entire country. When the court's Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) announces that ‘a warrior of black-and-white’ is destined to defeat him, Shen assumes she is referring to a panda, and attempts to exterminate the panda population. Shen's parents are mortified by his atrocity and exile Shen, who swears revenge. Years later Po the panda (Jack Black) achieves the status of ‘Dragon Warrior’, and is protecting the Valley of Peace alongside his friends and fellow kung fu masters, the Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Seth Rogen and Lucy Liu) when word comes down that Master Thundering Rhino (Victor Garber), the leader of the kung fu council protecting Gongmen City, has been killed by Shen, and that Masters Storming Ox (Dennis Haysbert) and Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) have been imprisoned. Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) sends Po and his friends to rescue the surviving masters, and destroy Shen’s ‘secret weapon’. Meanwhile, Po struggles with visions from his past, and tries to achieve inner peace.

Kung Fu Panda 2
The original Kung Fu Panda was a bit of a revelation for me. At the time I had zero faith in DreamWorks Animation, following years of dopey, unfunny, occasionally even offensively terrible films. I’d also grown numb to Jack Black’s usual shtick, which was turning him into consistent douche bag on film, and thought that martial arts in children’s entertainment was threatening to grow stale, despite being a big fan of both Avatar: The Last Airbender and the TMNT reboot. I watched the film with heavy skepticism, and was fully won over by its charms, and now no longer assume the worst from DreamWorks Animation and Jack Black. But DreamWorks has a terrible habit of grinding out unneeded sequels, and the generally diminishing quality of these sequels sullies the positive memories of the originals. Kung Fu Panda also put a definitive cap on its story. Po the panda has a spiritual awakening, defeats the most powerful kung-fu master in the world, and wins over the affections of his heroes/friends. The stench of Shrek 3 tainted Kung Fu Panda 2, and I avoided seeing it in theaters. Harrumph.

I guess I forgot that there was probably a story behind Po being raised by a goose. This story really works, however, for a variety of reasons, and all of them are successful built around common storytelling tropes. The writers replace the Hero’s Journey aspects of the original film with the common ‘loss of power’ trope (Po is more or less Superman in this film, and it should follow that Superman 2 is used a bit as a model). At first it seems that Po’s assignment to find inner peace is a trite filler for the fact that he’s basically invincible, but his strength is rendered moot as his past stirs up fears, leading him to an unexpectedly believable place of uncertainty. The villain of the piece isn’t a somehow magically more amazing martial artist than the villain of the previous film, his strength is found in his knowledge, and his threat isn’t only a physical one, it’s a philosophical one (kind of like Lex Luthor, the Joker, and any other number of famous and enduring arch enemies). His existence doesn’t just threaten Po and his friends physically, it threatens their way of life. The writers are using Lord Shen as the familiar metaphor of the modern world destroying tradition, even artistry (if you’re will to look that far down this particular rabbit hole). They’re also ensuring he has a valid reason for his evil, and that he and Po share a personal link, which is really better than I can say for Tai Lung, the slightly more id-driven villain of the original film. So here, within 15 minutes the makers of Kung Fu Panda 2 have validated their films existence, and I am generally wrong.

Kung Fu Panda 2
I still have problems with Po’s not being an absolute kung-fu badass following his spiritual awakening, and losing skirmishes against clearly underpowered opponents, considering he handily dispatched the most powerful warrior in the world at the end of the last chapter in this story, but I can accept ignoring bits of continuity in the case of an unplanned sequel in favour of the better standalone story (I mean, I’m a Star Wars fan, I’m nothing if not malleable when it comes to continuity). There are issues with the momentum of the story considering the ‘action sequence every 15 minutes’ model the filmmakers set, but the general pacing doesn’t suffer too much, and the most uninspired-but-necessary plot moments are skipped over quickly (minus credits the film runs about 80 minutes). The big emotional moments have goose-bump inducing power I was not prepared for, as well. With a bit of tightening up in the middle section this script could’ve been superior even to the original film. The humour is slightly lacking, I suppose. I certainly didn’t laugh as much as I did watching the original film, but I still appreciate the drier jokes when the heavy physical comedy fails. The top-tier quality of the character animation and performances certainly helps, especially anything pertaining to Shen, who features some of the most complex animation, and is played with awkward charm by Gary Oldman. The repeating gags that features Po failing to be the action hero he thinks he is are laugh worthy at every turn.

Even if the story had sucked, and the characters been flat, there’d be no denying that Kung Fu Panda 2 is an incredibly gorgeous film. I remember that when the film was in production it was announced that Guillermo del Toro had been hired as a visual consultant/producer, and his painterly influence is apparent from frame one (del Toro also worked on DreamWorks Animation’s Megamind and Puss in Boots, and his long time cinematographer collaborator Guillermo Navarro worked in a similar capacity on Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa). Things open on a beautiful paper/shadow puppet style prologue (similar to the puppet show prologue from del Toro’s Hellboy 2), then breaks into some of the most vibrant and evocative CG animation I’ve ever seen. The most pleasant surprise is the ease at which the filmmakers mix mediums. Traditional cell animation infiltrates the imagery several times, in the form of stylistic punches, and more seriously, memories and dreams. The action is more dynamic this time around as well. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything else in 2011 that compares in terms of pure action. Occasionally the ‘in your face’ quality is a little much (I’m assuming this works better in 3D) but the sweeping camera movement during the more adventurously action packed scenes, and the crash-zoom, Dutch angle heavy fight scenes are a blast. The scope of some of these scenes are breathtaking to such a degree one forgets they’re watching a patently cartoony animated film.

Kung Fu Panda 2

Video


There is a whole lot to appreciate on this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer (this is the 2D version for your records), from the tiniest details, and smoothest transitions, to the brightest and most vibrant colours. And I can’t find a single thing to complain about, even when I crawl up to the television and press my noise against the glass. The costumes and production design are incredibly ornate, featuring the smallest, most intricate elements imaginable set against even more intricate elements. You can practically feel the juxtaposing textures, and some shots are overwhelming in their dueling elements, without a lick of edge enhancement, digital noise, or any other brand of artefact. Red, yellow and green are general theme colours, and these play sharply against each other in the form of sharp highlights, heavy pops, and soft glows. The heaviest red elements, which usually represent the evil of Shen (who is entirely white, which cleverly allows him to absorb all the colours around him), are incredibly impressive in terms of hue purity. The best I can manage in terms of criticism is some minor banding effects on some of the red background blends. This is reference level material through and through.

Kung Fu Panda 2

Audio


Dolby TrueHD soundtracks never sound as loud as DTS-HD Master Audio tracks on my system, and this Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is no exception, but once I found a happy volume level I was not disappointed. This is an aggressive mix that fills every channel with action and ambience. The smooth warmth of some of the more dramatic, and dialogue heavy scenes are just fine, but the rollicking action sequences take obvious precedence. The fisticuffs feature plenty of zipping directional movement, and the more epic explosive sequences are vast in their immersive quality, and heavy in their LFE component, especially when stuff starts blowing up. Most major characters have some kind of aural signature to their movements, which is a fun way to recognize the smallest noises within even a major battle. I particularly enjoy the beach ball bounce that Po makes, and the manic flutters of Shen and Mantis. Directional elements are a regular occurrence, but there is a standout bit where Po awkwardly dodges nothing throughout the rear channels at the top of the climax.

Kung Fu Panda 2

Extras


Like most of DreamWorks Animation’s bigger releases this disc features a handful of in-film extras, including a trivia track, a filmmakers commentary featuring producer Melissa Cobb, production designer Raymond Zibach, fight choreographer Rodolphe Guenoden and director Jennifer Yuh, and the Animator’s Corner picture in picture option. I’ve been having some random issues with my player since the latest firmware upgrade, so I couldn’t get the audio to work on the Animator’s Corner option, but could see the storyboard comparisons, which were cool, and imagine that there isn’t too much overlap based on what it appeared the interview subjects were speaking about. Subject matter appears to cover a wide range of the making-of process, and includes interviews with the voice acting staff. The commentary is a bit low key, but there’s not a lot of blank space, and plenty of technical discussion. There’s a real sense of community between the participants, all of whom seemed to have a big impact on the final product. The trivia track is kind of moot following the other two options. Also under the Blu-ray exclusive menu is Animation Inspiration, a map of China with eight stops, each featuring their own featurette concerning the filmmaking team’s research trip to China (11:40, HD).

Likely the most popular extra among fans will be Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Masters (23:00, HD) a new short subject staring members of the original cast. Here Po tricks Tigress and Mantis into breaking into a museum before its official opening, where he generally geeks out, and tells tails of the story of the Masters Rhino, Croc and Ox. This is largely 2D animated in a similar style to the flashbacks in the film. Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness (23:50, HD) is the pilot episode of the new animated series (entitled ‘Has Been Hero’), which seems to be on a good track to being at least as entertaining as the Penguins of Madagascar series. Kickin’ it With the Cast (12:40, HD) sort of speaks for itself, and features behind the scenes footage and interviews with producer Melissa Cobb, director Jennifer Yuh, Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, James Hong, Gary Oldman, Danny McBride, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The disc also features three deleted scenes in test animation form, with director introductions (4:20, HD), Panda Stories (7:40, HD), a look at the conservation efforts to save the giant panda in relation to the film, two games ( Barrels of Bunnies and Baby Po’s Great Crate Challenge), Ni Hao, a Mandarin learning game, a World of DreamWorks Animation soundtrack menu, and trailers.

Kung Fu Panda 2

Overall


Kung Fu Panda was the first great DreamWorks Animation film (outside of their Aardman co-productions), and now Kung Fu Panda 2 is their first great sequel. Well, not quite ‘great’, but very, very good. It’s beautiful to look at, features grand scale action, and it ambushed me with its genuinely moving sentiment. I’d like to be too cool for school and say I rolled my eyes when a third movie is teased just before the credits run, but I’m looking forward to another adventure. This Blu-ray looks absolutely perfect, sounds pretty darn good, and features a whole pile of extras, including filmmakers’ commentary, PiP behind the scenes, and two amusing shorts.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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