The film picks up a short while after the end of the first film, with the eponymous black and white bear Po (Jack Black) now established as the Dragon Warrior and continuing to fight and train alongside the Furious Five and Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). However, a new threat is posed by Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) who harnesses the power of fireworks to create a weapon so powerful it could bring an end to kung fu.
Kung Fu Panda 2 does a lot of things right. In terms of animation, it's almost certainly the most technically proficient and visually impressive film DreamWorks have produced so far. The style of animation is carried over well from the first film, giving the world created a pleasingly authentic Chinese mythological feel. There are also more hand drawn segments included throughout the film than in the first, which fit in well with the aesthetic of the story. The way in which Po's back story is fleshed out in the film is commendable, as it would have been very easy for the studio to simply churn out a brightly-coloured fight fest with no heart that kids would have still lapped up.
With all of this going for it, and being a fan of the original movie, I really wanted to like Kung Fu Panda 2 a lot. But the problems are too big to ignore. The story feels very rushed at the start, then stretched out too much over the middle acts, making things feel pretty uneven overall. The script too feels pedestrian, with much less personality and humour than in the first film. And whilst there are some impressive action and fight sequences throughout, there are also some which feel too busy and confused to enjoy, a la Transformers.
The only vocal performance worthy of praise is that of Oldman, who hams it up a treat as the maleficent peacock Shen and steals every scene he's in. Black's performance is uninspired with the comedian going through the motions from start to finish. The Furious Five are wasted almost entirely, with only Angelina Jolie as Tigress receiving any notable role. What's the point of having Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu back again to voice characters, only to give them merely a handful of forgettable lines throughout?
The biggest flaw, however, is in the vast reduction of Hoffman's role as Shifu. Hoffman's participation can pretty much be considered a cameo here. One of the key reasons for the first film's success was the vocal performance of Hoffman and his brilliant interplay with Black. His absence from a huge portion of the sequel removes that element without successfully replacing it, and the film really suffers from the loss of Shifu as a character and Hoffman as a vocal presence.
All of this means Kung Fu Panda 2 never fulfils the potential it holds. The most disappointing fact of all is it's clear from what is here that the potential held was huge. It's not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a prime example of a film that should have been a champion quickly becoming an also-ran through a few key mistakes. Taking into account the cinematic masterpieces being produces by Pixar, now is the time that DreamWorks simply have to take their animated output to the next level not only in animation but in every other way too if they want to be considered contenders to Pixar's throne. We've yet to see DreamWorks' answer to a Toy Story 3 or a WALL-E, and, unfortunately, Kung Fu Panda 2 doesn't bring them any closer to achieving it.