Though Po (Jack Black) remains the Dragon Warrior, under the watchful eye of his mentor Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) he is tasked with taking over the latter’s position, and becoming a teacher to the Furious Five. Alarmed at the expectations placed upon him, it soon becomes something of a side-note when his long lost father Li (Bryan Cranston) finally seeks out his son, and tells him there’s a whole community of pandas awaiting his arrival. Desperate to meet his fellow, chubby brethren for the very first time – Po realises he can’t be away for too long, as the nefarious, brutish villain Kai (J.K Simmons) is after his unique powers.
Tonally, this picture is identical to came before, as again the oriental elements enrich this animation so profoundly, adding such a distinct vibrancy and enchantment to the aesthetic, making for a glorious, indelible visual experience – not to mention how the music and folklore informs the atmosphere. However where this film differs, is within the lack of a more savage, uncompromising antagonist, who simply isn’t as indestructible nor fearful as the other villains within the franchise. You think back to when we were first introduced to Tai Lung in the original picture, chained up in a dark, overly guarded prison cell, and you felt uneasy in his presence. But Kai is too comedically inclined, and while the fact he’s frustrated nobody has ever heard of him makes for one of the funnier running jokes, it’s emblematic of the film’s greatest shortcoming.
Kung Fu Panda has also survived off having such a traditional underdog in the lead, always setting out to defy the odds, in the most endearingly clumsy manner possible. In the first production it was more prevalent, but you would have imagined now as he’s an experienced Dragon Warrior, he may have lost that aspect to his demeanour – but again, Po has maintained his underdog status, surpassing expectations even now, ensuring the film hasn’t lost that crucial element, and one it had seemed such a challenge to keep hold of. But the filmmakers, just like Po, continue to surprise.