Unlike most other major Hollywood studios, DreamWorks Animation doesn’t put out films that are rushed through production and released with little care as to their box office potential. Studios such as Warner Bros, Universal, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and Disney produce so many films in any given year that they can, for the most part, afford a few financial flops. Obviously, they strive to ensure that all of their movies are box office hits, but they also know that for every flop they make, they can recoup their losses with one or more box office hits as well as the home market. Not so with DreamWorks Animation (DWA). Sure, they too rely heavily on the DVD/Blu-ray markets, but given the fact that DWA releases no more than two or three (very costly) films per year, there is very little room for one of these films to not perform during their theatrical run. Consequently, each and every animated film is scrutinized frame by frame by not only the director(s), but also the producer(s) and, ultimately, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of DWA.

KUNG FU PANDA is perhaps DWA’s most obvious choice for a film franchise. A team of kung fu warriors who go out on adventures looking for bad guys easily lends itself to countless storylines. The characters are unique and interesting enough for audiences to latch onto. The feudal Chinese setting is cool and pretty to look at. And perhaps most importantly for younger audiences, the kung fu/mystical element provides for fast-paced action sequences. Tying all of this together is an engaging storyline that revolves around Po’s (Jack Black), our panda bear hero, journey to uncover his past.

The first film was about Po and his quest to become China’s next Dragon Warrior. KUNG FU PANDA was a classic hero’s journey about an unlikely individual (Po) who is chosen to be a great warrior. Po found himself by discovering the necessary qualities and learning the skills to become that warrior. In KUNG FU PANDA 2, Po is now a popular and revered warrior/celebrity who protects the Valley of Peace. Along with his cohorts, the Furious Five (Tigress – Angelina Jolie; Monkey – Jackie Chan; Mantis – Seth Rogen; Viper – Lucy Liu; and Crane – David Cross) and their sensei (Master Shifu – Dustin Hoffman), Po embarks on adventures to find and beat anyone who threatens the peace and safety of his kingdom. In this film, the kingdom is threatened by Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), an evil peacock who seeks to rule China with the help of a powerful weapon never before seen in China – gunpowder. Like the first film, Po has to find himself again, but this time he learns about his past and about “inner peace.”

As summer popcorn entertainment that serves to provide 2 hours of escapist fare, KUNG FU PANDA 2 does its job. However, if you’re looking for anything more memorable, this film ain’t it. Although I was taken in by the gorgeous scenery, fluid animation, its genuinely funny humor, and at-times breathtaking action, the film fails to impart any sense of the epic-ness a story of this scope should give off. Especially during his early scenes, Lord Shen is an imposing villain, which is helped in no small measure by Gary Oldman’s wonderful voice performance. The story does a good job setting him up as a pretty heartless bastard with big ambitions. Unfortunately, there is no payoff after we’re introduced to him. I wanted to see Lord Shen advance upon all of China with his big bad cannons, overtaking villages and creating all sorts of mayhem and destruction. We don’t see any of that and, as a result, Lord Shen doesn’t come off as the menace he’s promised to be in the film’s beginning. When our heroes advance upon his fortress, their mission to take him down feels like just another one of their many adventures. Although Po is badly hurt at one point, the stakes are not raised too high for our heroes or at least they don’t seem like anything they can’t overcome with some extra effort.

Another issue I had with the sequel is in how underused the Furious Five are (with the exception of Po). Given the great voice actors behind these characters (Seth Rogen and David Cross especially), I wish we got to see the comedic talents of these actors utilized better rather than have the focus just be on Jack Black. I understand that KUNG FU PANDA is about Po and he’s intended to be the central figure, but why cast such big names (besides merely for the box office draw, which no kid really gives a shit about…case in point: every Pixar movie) when you’re not going to really use them. I must have heard like 3 lines from Jackie Chan and had I not known he was voicing Monkey, I would have never guessed it was Jackie Chan. I do have to say that for once, I was not annoyed by Jack Black and that is saying a lot considering how sick of him I have become over the past couple of years. Black doesn’t overdo his whole ‘awesome’ routine and he delivers a subdued and appropriate tone to his character that doesn’t overwhelm you.

KUNG FU PANDA 2 has a sentimental subplot involving Po’s search for his past. The film contains a truly sad scene (SPOILER ALERT) where we see Po’s mother leave Po behind and its alluded that she is immediately killed thereafter by Lord Shen. However, the sentiment is so simplistic that it comes off as being more patronizing than heartfelt. I certainly appreciate the effort made to go beyond having your typical animated kids’ movie hero, but at the same time, the sentiment feels way too manufactured and unsophisticated.

On the other hand, KUNG FU PANDA 2 has many virtues, which together outweigh the film’s problems. For one, we are THANKFULLY spared the full-scale barrage of pop-culture humor that have made such films as SHREK immediately outdated. The humor isn’t as fresh as it was in the first film, but it still retains its hilarity and I laughed for much throughout the movie. Again, I wish the comedic talents of the other comedians (Seth Rogen and David Cross) in the movie were also present, but what I enjoyed about this film was how much the film relies upon the martial arts and actual story elements to convey its humor rather than witty lines from the characters.

One of the highlights of the movie is the series of flashbacks that reveal Po’s childhood, his parents, and their fate. The flashbacks are rendered beautifully in old-style hand-drawn animation. What’s more, the flashbacks tie the first and second movie together nicely and STRONGLY hint at a third film. It’s a nice touch and it strangely reminded me of the anime sequence in KILL BILL, VOL. 1.

The 3D-fueled fight and chase sequences are quite spectacular and for those of you wanting to see a lot of action, KUNG FU PANDA 2 offers a LOT of it. I would say that about 80% of this film is action and that’s not necessarily a bad thing considering its summer and all. In particular, the very first action sequence between the Furious Five and a bunch of hyenas/jackals is a dizzying display of intense excitement. There were moments in this sequence that made me smile like a kid watching a bad-ass kung fu movie for the very first time. The one recurring problem that has endlessly plagued DWA films is in their films’ climax and resolution (i.e. MADAGASCAR is a prime example). KUNG FU PANDA 2 bucks this trend and features a wonderful action fight sequence between Po and Lord Shen where Po uses his “inner peace” to take on Lord Shen’s cannons. Although I could have done without the jokes during the sequence, its still a beautiful moment to watch.

You can’t go wrong by seeing KUNG FU PANDA 2. It nowhere reaches DWA’s fantastic HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON or this year’s RANGO (still my favorite animated film of 2011), but its nevertheless a fun movie to watch. I saw this film in 3D and normally DWA does a good job in utilizing the 3D format to give you your money’s worth, but I don’t think the format was used to its fullest potential and you will be better off skipping the 3D and watching this film in 2D. It is also worth mentioning that KUNG FU PANDA 2 was not only directed by a female director (Jennifer Yuh Nelson), but it was solo-directed by Nelson, which is a rare feat.