If we must have endless sequels to Kung Fu Panda – and I fear DreamWorks' accountants insist we must – then we can only hope that they're all as sharp and enjoyable as Kung Fu Panda 2. This may be an unnecessary addition to a film that was a small pleasure on its own, but it's a painless affair as these things go. It also helps that chubby panda Po is Jack Black's most personable role, one in which he displays an endearingly naïve charm and some surprisingly dextrous voice work. In this second instalment, the newly crowned Dragon Warrior Po remains a lovably lazy and greedy creation, impressing the rest of the Furious Five in an early scene with his astonishing ability to fit multiple dumplings in his mouth rather than showcasing his martial arts skills. He gets the chance to display those talents soon after, however, when Po and the Five are called to defend a musicians' village from marauding bandits ("Play some action music," Po demands of one before the fight begins).
The speed with which Kung Fu Panda 2 dives into its first action sequence – and the breathlessness of the ensuing melee – is indicative of the way the movie carries itself. This is a much leaner and more direct picture than its predecessor, with director Jennifer Yuh spending less time on comedic set-pieces and instead focusing more on spectacle and plot, and the movie is often a real thrill. The many chase sequences and large-scale fight scenes are handled with real verve and energy, and the gorgeously detailed animation is a wonder throughout. The momentum rarely slackens, which is fun but also a little exhausting, and what downtime there is tends to focus on Po's origins, as the central protagonist begins to learn who he is and where he came from.
I was excited when I heard that Charlie Kaufman was going to be working on the Kung Fu Panda 2 screenplay, but alas, my vision of a film that takes place entirely inside Po's angst-ridden mind didn't come to pass. Instead, the plot introduces a new villain, a peacock named Shen (a well-cast Gary Oldman), who wants to rule all of China with his fireworks-based weaponry and once attempted to wipe out the panda race, making little Po an orphan. The revelation of Po's heritage does rather spoil one of the best gags from the original film – the unspoken weirdness of a goose fathering a panda – but it also gives the drama a solid emotional backbone that is skilfully developed. Po's relationship with fellow Furious Five member Tigress (Angelina Jolie) is given some weight too, and the panda's search for inner piece pays dividends during the involving climax.
Unfortunately, as in the first film, few of the characters surrounding Po are given a great deal to do. While Dustin Hoffman can make his mark in just a few scenes as Po's mentor Master Shifu, I can barely remember a single vital contribution from Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu or David Cross; the team of heroes essentially boils down to Po and Tigress, but that's ultimately all the film needs. Kung Fu Panda 2 is a movie that simply gets the job done – it builds efficiently upon the first instalment, offers an enjoyable standalone story, and sets the scene for further adventures. It's hard to bear a grudge against studios churning out sequels when they work as well as this, but can DreamWorks keep it up? I have a feeling this panda is going to run and run.