"Kung Fu Panda 2" Blu-ray: Inner Peace Through a Great Set of Bonuses
I don’t have very much more to say about Kung Fu Panda 2 from my review of the theatrical release, even after watching the film a few more times on Blu-ray. Sequels are almost never as good as the original films, and while that’s still true of Kung Fu Panda 2, it’s still quite close to the original and thus edges out How to Train Your Dragon as my second-favorite DreamWorks Animation movie (and it’s a pretty sharp, steep drop after #3). I find I am even more impressed at the performances (both vocal and animated) throughout the movie, and believe it is the strength of those performances that explains how it can survive the occasional clichéd or forced plot element.
There’s plenty to like in the Blu-ray presentation of Kung Fu Panda 2. By now, I don’t think any modern animated feature project from a major studio has any reason to look bad on Blu-ray, and Kung Fu Panda 2 looks pristine. Colors pop, textures are practically tactile, and the large-scale panorama shots are absolutely breathtaking. The Blu-ray also comes with a 7.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack that’s surprisingly understated, considering the number of booms and explosions throughout the film. Fans of the film will also be greatly pleased at the excellent selection of special features accompanying the movie. A new short film, “Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Masters,” repurposes a concept dropped from the feature to chronicle how Master Ox, Master Crocodile, and Master Rhino came to be the guardians of Gongmen City. The good news is that it’s almost all done in the same hand-drawn style of Po’s dream sequences and the first “Secrets of the Furious Five” bonus short, which I still adore. Bringing back Randall Duk Kim to play Master Oogway also generates a lot of goodwill. Only Dennis Haysbert reprises his role from the film, which is fine by me because he’s awesome enough to make even an Allstate commercial cool. However, the short just doesn’t measure up to the movie, or even the first “Secrets of the Furious Five” bonus short. It just feels extremely forced; characters don’t change or do things organically, but because that’s just what the story needs them to be doing. The final, inevitable victory and team-up of the three just doesn’t feel as convincing as it needs to be by the end.
Whatever my issues with “Secrets of the Masters,” it fares far better than the episode of the Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness that is also included on the disc. In “Has-Been Hero,” Po meets one of his childhood kung fu heroes, now over-the-hill, before veering off in increasingly implausible directions until its almost entirely nonsensical conclusion. My opinion that the TV show trivializes the characters and feels superfluous was especially reinforced when watching it in such close proximity to the second movie.
The backbone of the “making of” material comes in three different tracks that play with the movie: a pop-up trivia track, a feature commentary track, and a picture-in-picture “Animator’s Corner.” The trivia track is the most lightweight of them, throwing in some interesting information occasionally, but clearly aimed at the kids in the audience with the way it skews for simplistic and slightly silly stuff like the “Inner Peace” counter (25, if you wanted to know). The commentary track is dominated by director Jennifer Yuh Nelson and producer Melissa Cobb, with production designer Raymond Zibach and the multi-roled, multi-talented Rodolphe Guenoden chiming in periodically as well. It is an excellent track and well worth a listen, with little dead air or repetition of what’s happening on-screen and a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes information. As a sign of how much they have to talk about, instead of the usual back-slapping or cutting off as the end credits roll, Nelson suddenly mentions that they “haven’t talked about Guillermo” (del Toro, who has a “creative consultant” credit), launching into a lengthy discussion of how his suggestions and contributions made it a stronger product in the end. The “Animator’s Corner” tends to go more in-depth with specific scenes, bringing other cast or crew members into the picture-in-picture window or running an animatic or storyboard of the scene being shown. It recycles a few bits from the commentary track, and will run longer segments from interviews conducted for the other bonus featurettes, but it’s interesting enough for the most part. Definitely for the hardcore, though.
The remaining bonus features are short but quite satisfactory. The Blu-ray exclusive “Animation Inspiration” summarizes the reference trip that the crew took to China, showcasing several of the real-world locations that inspired settings in the movie. “Kickin’ It With the Cast” puts several of the voices on camera to discuss their characters, giving some interview time to Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman, and James Hong, while also allowing other creative crew members to gush about some of the other actors. There are very few deleted scenes presented as animatics which are interesting as “road not taken” alternatives, since they are substantial departures from what made it to the movie. “Panda Stories” focuses on the crew’s visit to the panda preserve and research center in Sichuan Province; lots of adorable, roly-poly bundles of black-and-white fuzziness can be found here. “Nǐ Hǎo: Learn to Speak Chinese” is an interactive talking dictionary that teaches simple words and phrases like “brave,” “I am hungry,” and “knowledge is power.” I quite like this feature for purely selfish and personal reasons, but it is very well put together from a more objective standpoint. There are two “Kung Fu Shuffle” games and the usual “World of DreamWorks Animation” featurette. The Blu-ray also comes with a DVD copy of the movie, which contains no bonus features at all, along with a code for a digital copy (Windows and Mac compatible) and two codes for the KungFuPandaWorld.com online video game. Honestly, the game feels like they just replaced sprites and voices from the How to Train Your Dragon online game, and thus failed to hold my interest for more than a few minutes.
Kung Fu Panda 2 proves to be an extremely good movie that borders on the great and comes rather close to the success of the first film. The Blu-ray is tremendously satisfying in its presentation of the film and its excellent slate of bonus features. It certainly kicks the snot out of the massively disappointing 2-disc “special” edition of Cars 2 in managing to pack a superb brace of bonus features on a single disc.