There's something about the "Kung Fu Panda" series that brings out the best in DreamWorks animators.
I don't know that I've seen a mainstream piece of animation as beautifully imagined, drawn and colored as "Kung Fu Panda 2." And yes, that includes anything done by Pixar.
You could see the spark of inspiration in the original "Panda" - something about the palette and the shapes of the Asian setting had the folks at DreamWorks on a creative high.
And while sequels sometimes bring out the worst in studios, in animation they sometimes allow artists to expand their range, to take existing animated computer models and embellish them, adding variety to form and movement. (And the 3-D is actually pretty good.)
It all pays off handsomely in "Panda 2," and is especially valuable in the early going as the story labors to get started.
"2" has title character Po (Jack Black) confronting the fact that he's obviously adopted. You'll recall his father (James Hong) is a duck.
Turns out Po was the last survivor of an attack on his panda family, brought about by a peacock warlord (Gary Oldman) mindful of a prophecy that he will be defeated by a kung fu warrior in black and white.
The warlord also fears kung fu, and so designs a modern instrument of war to render physical combat obsolete. Backed by his dragon-headed cannons and army of wolves, he rules over his kingdom by fear.
Yes, that sounds a little heavy for children, but pains are taken to keep the tone as close as possible to the lighthearted spirit of the original.
As Po and his band of kung fu animal pals (Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan)) travel to confront the peacock king, there are standard action beats and sequences and the movie skips along.
And the animators invent an ingenious, disarming way to investigate darker aspects of Po's story. They create a flatter dimension for Po's dreams and recovered memories, so that when we finally see what happened to his parents, it takes place in a less immediate, less threatening cartoon realm.
And when the story does come together, it carries unexpected emotional weight. Po learns to face and accept his past, while acknowledging his debt to the "man" who actually raised him.
Again, the finale is an achievement for the animators, who find dramatic visual ways to depict Po's transformation to a self-confident warrior who's achieved "inner peace."
Long live kung fu.