It might seem like damning with faint praise to say that Kung Fu Panda 2 plays and feels like a "real movie." But in truth, I am using that phrase in the context of how most adult audiences will view the film. In a world where a sequel is only seen as an extension of its more respected predecessor and any animated film is viewed primarily as fodder for young children (Pixar's masterworks notwithstanding), it is doubly hard for a non-Toy Story animated sequel to attain creative independence and reach a critical mass.
But like its silly, bumbling, unlikely hero, Kung Fu Panda 2 succeeds against all odds. It feels like a standalone movie. Here is a sequel that not only far surpasses the funny and entertaining 2008 original, but goes so magnificently above and beyond that it renders its predecessor nearly obsolete. If it weren't for the stigma that comes along with being a sequel -- to a film about a hungry, farting, kung fu bear, no less -- Kung Fu Panda 2 would be a near shoo-in for next year's Best Animated Feature Oscar. It is that special.
As it stands, another unlikely hero -- Rango -- will probably take home the Oscar, and not undeservingly. But oddly enough, Kung Fu Panda 2 shares some of the central themes of that otherwise very different film, most specifically the very human struggle to reconcile one's identity with one's past. Whereas Rango charted a more nebulous path in its search for an answer to the "Who Am I?" question, Kung Fu Panda 2 treads a more conventional path to cinematic enlightenment. But it finds the heart in its characters, which unlocks the magic in its storytelling. The film is compelling and emotional and exciting in the most wonderful of Big Summer Movie ways. It is a roundhouse kick to the giddy, fun-loving movie lover that lies dormant in even the most cynical critic.
Jack Black returns as Po, who rose from humble (and hungry) beginnings to become the mythical "Dragon Warrior" in the first movie. But Po's story really only begins with this film, which doesn't rest on the laurels of cutesy comedy and recognizable characters. Kung Fu Panda 2 tells the story of Po's journey to achieve "inner peace," a theme the screenplay shrewdly weaves throughout the film, and one that may seem ironic in a movie full of such ebullient energy. Inner peace, however, doesn't seem in the cards for Po, who has grown curious about his true origins, and whose new foe, the evil albino peacock Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman), may hold the key to unlocking those origins. While struggling to uncover his past, Po -- working with Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie) and the rest of the "Furious Five" -- must also neutralize Shen's allegedly unstoppable doomsday weapon, which the evil one will presumably use to enact that most nefarious of movie-movie plans: take over the world.
The film's only reasonable ambitions should be to inject a few chuckles at the expense of its mugging hero and mount a few creative action set pieces. But director Jennifer Yuh and returning screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger go far beyond what seems conceivable for a presumably silly lark of a film. The focus on character is so surprisingly sharp that the conflict seamlessly fuses with the rest of the material, becoming accessible to everyone in the audience.
And the magic doesn't stop at the story and character level. Kung Fu Panda 2 is gorgeous to look at, a markedly more impressive visual experience than its forebear. Bright colors still permeate every scene, but the level of detail -- from the scruff of Po's fur to the glint in Tigress's eye to the visceral power of each unique action set piece -- is remarkable. Those action sequences, by the way, are creative marvels on every level. Not only are they beautifully rendered on a technical scale, but they are mounted with a cinematic clarity most live-action kung fu films strain to achieve. Filmic references are woven into every frame, from samurai epics to chop-socky grindhouse flicks to the expressive visceral emotion of Japanese anime. Each set piece is its own cultural melting pot, and the filmmakers still find the right beats to inject the film's trademark humor throughout.
Kung Fu Panda 2 fully realizes the understood goal of every sequel: it raises the emotional stakes, reaches for bigger laughs, and stages its action on a much larger scale. But apart from the spectacle, the film's most impressive upgrade is the richness of its emotion, which elevates every other element to create a near-perfect summer movie experience. "Animated" and "sequel" labels be damned, Kung Fu Panda 2 stands on its own, a "real" movie with real appeal for everyone.