An example of a breathtaking shot showing off the design of Gongmen City.

Kung Fu Panda represented a sea-change for Dreamworks Animation. Up til that point, they’d preoccupied themselves with churning out Shrek sequels (which are okay) and lesser works like Shark Tale that basically stunt-casted celebrities to ape whatever motif Pixar was working with that year. It began well enough with Antz, which some argue is still the better of the two CG ant movies, the other being Pixar’s Seven Samurai-inspired A Bug’s Life.

Whatever they were thinking, it seemed like they’d always be that other animation studio forever in Pixar’s shadow. Then came Kung Fu Panda and though the primarily “who’s popular now” casting remains, it was and is a very different sort of beast. Was it a fluke? An honest to goodness kung fu movie with a colorful cast of cartoon animals? With amazing shots and some of the better martial arts fight scenes in recent years? An awesome mystical kung fu tortoise? What the fuck?

Then there was How to Train Your Dragon and suddenly Dreamworks were worth taking seriously as purveyors of more than just pop-cultures spoof cartoons. Kung Fu Panda was not a fluke. They were interested in making real movies, rare enough in the American animation game already. How to Train Your Dragon was the indisputable winner last year with Pixar putting out another sappy sequel to the over-rated Toy Story series. This year, Kung Fu Panda 2 is going to wipe the neon Tokyo floor with Cars 2.

Your move, Pixar.

Try to remember, as I gush about this movie, that I didn’t go into it with lowered expectations (I think the first one is great) or prejudices against Jack Black or animation in general. Rango proved, for 2011, that you can have real movies that happen to be both animated and not made by Pixar. Kung Fu Panda 2 is the goddamn peer-reviewing process necessary to make the snobs take note.

But hey, let’s not stop there. No! It isn’t enough to say that Kung Fu Panda 2 is the first movie to not only threaten Pixar’s seat but to actually pull itself up above it’s comparatively inferior predecessor and stand shoulder to shoulder with the best Pixar has to offer. It isn’t even enough to say that we’re talking about one of the best movies of the year so far and certainly the most fun. I’m saying all of that and more. I’m saying Kung Fu Panda 2 is fucking amazing.

And now I’m going to tell you why.

The most obvious reason is that it’s just better than the first one. On every conceivable level. The first movie had a standard unlikely hero plot, played around with kung fu and “Old China” motifs in a fun, self-aware way. It also had real heart and a few significant emotional payoffs. It’s only real shortcomings were minor: it had a large cast of secondary characters it did little with (the Furious Five), the villain was underused (but awesome), and the narrative parallel between Po and that villain in relation to Master Shufi’s role as teacher was muddled.

Now, in Kung Fu Panda 2, all of those issues are gone. The Furious Five have slightly more to do, especially Tigress who has a genuine arc and the villain (Master Shen) is present throughout and his arc thematically dovetails with Po’s in several interesting ways. That the secondary characters are still a bit underused would seem like an issue again if not for how much the focus is rightly on Po and Shen. As a result, it’s a breathtakingly confident movie with no wasted moments. It also feels more like the legitimate Kung Fu Epic that the first one flirted with being and never fully committed to. It is also significantly darker, but remains family-friendly and light-hearted. And I mean that in the best way.

Baby Po is absurdly cute. I have such a weakspot for babies. Apparently panda babies are like some magical compound of emasculation.

Kung Fu Panda 2 focuses on Po’s origins and his inability to find inner peace and do his job while plagued with fractured memories and whatever connection Shen has to them. As the movie unfolds, Po is the chief focus and there’s a lot more than fat jokes and kung fu geeking going on with him this time. The emotional meat of the film is Po’s questionable origins, his relationship to his adoptive Goose father, and the necessities of dealing with one’s past by letting go in order to make choices about the present and future. It’s solid, sophisticated stuff. In a kid’s movie. The jokes are still there (and most of them are truly funny) and the movie never stays serious so long that it becomes maudlin or overdoes its sentimental streak. The shifts from comedy to tragedy to action to small character moments are effortless and perfectly placed. I took notice of them in a particular way only because I was so surprised at how well constructed the whole deal is. It’s a marvel, really. It may be one of the better paced movies I’ve seen in a while.

There were scenes dealing with Po’s memories, his brief but happy childhood among his own kind, and his eventual choice of parent figure that had me choking up. The movie teases a more Japanese animation style for the memories, letting chunks come through over time until the whole memory is complete. It whets your appetite for this departure from the CG “reality” of the movie but in an emotionally cathartic way, not the geek fantasy in the first movie.

But then again, there is the dream where Po’s parents adopt a radish to replace him and the radish is a kung fu master who kicks Po’s ass. It was my favorite fucking part short of the ending (which I will talk more about).

The plot of the film is pretty simple. Master Shen is the son of the Peacock rulers of this big-ass, amazingly designed, city. He is banished because he uses his family’s secret mastery of fireworks to make weapons. A soothsayer predicts that a “black and white warrior” will end his shit so he goes out with his wolf henchmen and slaughters all the pandas. Po is the baby that got away, much like Kal-El or Luke Skywalker (there’s more than a little Empire Strikes Back in this movie). Now the Dragon Warrior, Po is still working on his training when he’s called on to deal with Shen. This starts him down the path to figuring out where he came from and how to achieve the elusive inner peace needed to prevail.

Shen’s red and white color theme is bold and visually striking while also representing a kind of opposing theme to Po’s black and white yin/yang thing. Shen’s design is about being regal and pure with touches of red to signify his malice and the blood on his “hands”.

Shen is present throughout the movie. He is maybe the most stunning looking character I’ve ever seen in any cartoon animal movie, but this mostly comes from his movement and fighting than in talky scenes. The way he is animated is simply incredible and I hear incredibly difficult to make work during development of the film. It shouldn’t surprise me since Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon was similarly amazing. Dreamworks knows talent, I guess. Credit must also go to Gary Oldman, who bangs it out of the park creating this crazy-eyed peacock megalomaniac. That this villain is present throughout allows us to see who he is, why he is so dangerous, and basically develops the fateful relationship he has to Po. The secondary villain, cuz this movie actually has one, is a wolf voiced by Danny McBride. He was my favorite new character after Shen and I desperately wanted him to turn good by the end (how the movie handles my wish is too awesome to spoil, and is a tiny moment that quickly gets lost if you aren’t paying attention). Suffice it to say that he has an actual character arc. The way he describes Po is a running joke that I loved as well.

Anyway, Shen’s issue is that his parents rejected him over his malicious streak. Because he is also the one who separated Po from his parents, it is a bizarre and dark inversion of Po’s abandonment issues and lingering questions about his parentage. Both characters are reacting to the absence of their parents throughout the film. The emotional life of the movie is completely caught up in this narrative. Again, it works gangbusters to add a level of darkness, sentimentality, and wonderful catharsis to what could have been a shallow kids-movie sequel.

An interesting sidenote and potential overanalysis: Shen’s kung fu-killing weapon is gunpowder. He basically makes cannons to blast motherfuckers who don’t agree with him. You know, rhinos and pigs and the like. That Shen is the only character with a British accent is a small and potentially unintentional commentary on English firepower’s effect on China a few hundred years ago. Pretty cool if intentional.

Though I was much more surprised by the excellent characters, plot, and thematic work of the movie, I was also surprised by the art direction. I expected some nice use of color composition and framing given what they pulled off in Kung Fu Panda (especially the jaguar villain’s escape scene), but I never expected that they would take that ball and run it so far into the land of the sublime. There are literally dozens of shots in this movie that are beautiful enough to hang on walls. All that the animators learned about how to balance color, especially red, in the first one is brought to bear here. Without more screencaps or your having (presumably) seen the movie, there’s really nothing else I can say about it except that this element is present and it is truly a thing to behold. Watching the movie will show you what I mean.

Or you can look at stunning pictures like this.

On top of the static visuals, there are the inventive action sequences. Every fight or chase is in turns hilarious, satisfying, and awesome in the way that only well-choreographed kung fu can be. Every character has a unique fighting style and the way it all coalesces into cooperative Furious Five+Dragon Warrior vs. Bad Guys fight scenes is astonishing in execution compared to the much more pedestrian action scenes in the first movie. The choice to base Po’s fighting on drunken boxing was an inspired one and since he starts off a kung fu master this time, the animators really got to flex their muscles showing this shit off.

One of the movie’s awesome chases involves Po skateboarding a fucking rickshaw.

Alongside all the other characters, and again I must refer to Shen, it’s fucking grand.

As is the brief dragon-costume sequence that takes on a demented Pac-Man element. This comes when the energy of the action and direction of the movie is seemingly without limit. Anything that takes place in the city setting, or around it, is just a masterclass in designing awe-inspiring buildings, shots, and action. And I do mean awe. That’s a good word for the feeling generated by some of the shots and moments in Kung Fu Panda 2. Not to mention the basic primal feeling associated with just how surprisingly good this shit is.

So what else do you need to know? This is a real kung fu movie that just happens to have a cheeky sense of humor and some talking animals. It’s also a real movie about choosing who we are and living with the choices we make and that are made for us. Plus it’s got a kung fu fighting radish. For fuck, you should already be buying a ticket.

While you’re doing that, I’m going to take this time to talk about the ending.

As soon as the truth about Po’s parents is revealed, there was a clear direction for the third movie. At least to me. I kept thinking, Kung Fu Panda 3 is about finding other pandas. Even though Shen seems to have wiped them out, I held out some hope that there had to be more in this world. And of course, Po needs a love interest eventually right!? One of the things I like about these movies thus far is that they avoided that convention. Now that they’re two in the bag, they have earned the right to go there.

Because the world-building takes on more dimension, showing us much more of this cartoon fantasy China than the first one did, it was easy to imagine other episodes of Po’s adventures but finding more of his kind definitely seemed to be the logical next step. As the movie reached its climax and I became certain it wouldn’t be settled yet, I marveled at the confidence they had in letting such a thing slide until a sequel, much like how the whole issue of Po being adopted was saved completely for this movie and never dealt with at all in the first one. Confidence is what that is.

Then I thought, but some nod to the next step would be nice. And sure enough, after we see that Po has fully ended this chapter of his adventures, we get that nod. The last two minutes of this movie satisfied me in ways I can’t begin to explain. I literally held up my hand as if being handed something and said “that’s it.”

Not “that’s it?” or “that’s it!?”

I think I was saying “that’s it, that’s how you make a fucking sequel” or “that’s it, that’s how you make an animated movie” or maybe it was “kung fu movie with talking animals and screaming radish warriors” or just “that’s it, that’s an awesome time at the cinema worth my $13+”.

It’s hard for me to talk about how much difference NOT MISSING OPPORTUNITIES makes for a movie so open to geekalysis as this is, or as Marvel movies and big summer tentpoles are. People tend to gloss over this stuff and get weirdly grateful about the half-formed nonsense they so often get that they forget that if someone just gave a fuck for 5 minutes, they would have gotten a lot more. Everybody involved with Kung Fu Panda 2 seems to have given that fuck and thus I think that long after the joy of having a watchable Thor movie and an actually good X-Men movie has diminished, I will remember that, unlike those movies and many more I could name that will get much more credit anyway, Kung Fu Panda 2 never missed any opportunities. It is complete and awesome and as close to a perfect animated movie as anything this side of Up.

So please. Forget Jack Black. Forget talking animals. See this fucking movie.