When I went into the first Kung Fu Panda, I had such low expectations, but ended up leaving the theater loving it. This time, I went in with much higher expectations... but was that a mistake? We're reunited with the Dragon Warrior, Po (Jack Black), and the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), and Mantis (Seth Rogen). They've become pretty close, even Po with their master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). But when Shen (Gary Oldman) decides to take over China using weapons of metal and fire (essentially a hybrid of cannons and fireworks), something so powerful that kung fu can't even stop it, it's up to our heroes to stop him. Unfortunately, a dangerous connection with Shen and something from Po's past comes back to haunt him, and he realizes an upsetting truth about his father, Mr. Ping (James Hong). Also giving their voice talents are Michelle Yeoh as a Soothsayer, Danny McBride as the Wolf Boss, and Dennis Haysbert and Jean-Claude Van Damme as two kung fu masters, Ox and Croc (respectively).
One thing I have to give the movie credit for is that it's very much a continuation of the story and not just a rehash of the original. They build on the characters, give them new challenges, and go through a new story. In the first, they were definitely antagonistic tendencies between Po and the Furious Five, particularly Tigress. But this time through, they're all pretty much friends, and there's even something hinted at and developing between Po and Tigress that I hope is explored further in a third chapter. Also, there's a lot of heart in this movie, Po and his internal struggle to discover who he is and who his family truly is. And there were some points near the end, I'll admit, that almost made me cry.
One of the great things about the first movie, though, too, were the action set pieces. Despite being an animated film, the action scenes were stunning and beautifully choreographed. This time through, there's a very slight drop in quality, but there are still some very fun moments. And, again, there's the "special technique" Po must learn that will inevitably help him defeat the enemy. This time it's a bit more obvious throughout, but it's still a good payoff (with a welcome and pretty hardcore "ska-doosh").
Strangely, I think where the movie suffers most is also one of its strongest areas. On the one side, you have a great story with Po struggling about his family and his history. It's a great, heartfelt side-story that brings characters together and really makes you feel for them. Unfortunately, there's the other story of the film--the one involving Shen--that's not as strong. It feels very shallow, and it could have been much deeper and more explored. They try to parallel it with Po's, but it barely misses the mark. I think with maybe one more draft of the script, they could have worked out the kinks, and things might not have felt so uneven or, at times, flat.
The animation, though, is absolutely gorgeous. There are so many fantastic settings and scenes that are amazing to look at. And there's a secondary style used for flashbacks and dream sequences (we saw this briefly in the first film) that is used frequently throughout the film that is completely fantastic. I also saw this one in 3D, and between this and How To Train Your Dragon, Dreamworks seems to know how to use the format. The movie would look stunning either way, and you probably won't miss anything if you don't see it in 3D, but it just adds a little something extra if you're willing to pay for it.
Overall, it doesn't quite reach the heights of the first film. Regardless, it is still a pretty dang entertaining movie, and another solid entry as of late for Dreamworks. If they decided to turn this into a trilogy, I'd still pay to see a third to see where they can take the characters and their relationships with each other. The animation is fantastic, the characters are good, the fighting is fun, and the humor is there. With a few more tweaks, it could have been outstanding, but for what it is, it's just really good.