Kung Fu Panda does not open a year after the end of part one with Po having forgotten his training and reverting to his prior state. Nor does he spend the entire movie re-ingratiating himself with Master Shifu, who has in turn not reverted to his state at the beginning of part one. The Furious Five have neither forgotten what Po accomplished in the first film, nor has their affection for Po vanished inexplicably between films.
We have broached the subject of what Kung Fu Panda 2 isn't, because we feel it better sheds light on what it is. Ultimately, there was absolutely no guarantee that the inverse would not have been true. When a movie - particularly an animated one - is successful, a conventional approach to the sequel is to change a few small elements then repeat the same basic format with the same character arc.
Not this time.
Instead, Kung Fu Panda opens with Po more or less as we left him: still a tad happy-go-lucky, but nevertheless a total badass who's won a great deal of respect. Sure, he still has a soft spot for food, but it no longer drives his every action. No, he spends most of Kung Fu Panda 2 on a quest to learn about his past and make peace with who he is.
Did we mention that this isn't a comedy? This is, first and foremost, an action movie, and it is a damned good action movie. Sure, there are jokes, but they're neither the driving force nor the point of the film. There's at least as much drama as there is comedy, and the emotional beats hit their mark.
This is the second best CG action movie ever made, behind The Incredibles. This is a movie of badasses fighting armies. We were teased with The Furious Five in the first movie: this time, we see them them fully unleashed. Remember that bridge fight in part one? Remember the Five coordinating their movements into an elaborate assault that integrated their natural forms and abilities into a cohesive force? There are easily a half dozen fights like that in the movie, maybe more.
And then there's Tigress, the character who showed the most promise, but was never really given a chance to shine in part one. Our largest fear going into Kung Fu Panda 2 was that they would de-power her to keep her from overshadowing Po. And, like every other misstep that could have been made here, they didn't. Tigress is awesome. Not just run-of-the-mill awesome, either: she's breaking-down-doors, taking-hits-without-flinching, plucking-flaming-arrows-out-of-the-goddamn-air awesome.
And we haven't even mentioned the villain, Shen. Or, more accurately, the undisputed SINGLE BEST VILLAIN TO APPEAR IN ANY CG MOVIE. Pixar's got a lot going for them, but they've never had a bad guy like Shen.
He's a killer - for real this time - and everything about him has an edge. He's fast, precise, and more importantly intelligent. He's ruthless, direct, and driven. The first movie's villain was a bully: Shen's a philosopher warlord. He's Machiavellian and focused. This is a guy who's committed unforgivable atrocities, but he's complex enough to retain a shred of our sympathy. And, because of that, he ultimately feels believable.
Kung Fu Panda 2 is a major achievement. This is a huge improvement over the first, which was already an extremely enjoyable film in its own right. On a five star scale with Incredibles holding the crown, Kung Fu Panda 2 deserves four and a half.
Unless Cars 2 greatly exceeds our expectations, we suspect we've just seen the best CG movie of the summer.