Why You Should…
Zimmer and Powell return to score a worthy sequel score to their successful 2008 collaboration, yielding more fluency and stronger emotional resonance.
Why You Shouldn’t…
If you’re still unwilling to hear your action scores interrupted by comedic inconsistency, despite the improvement in overall narration.
Release Date: 24th May 2011
Composer(s): Hans Zimmer & John Powell
Recorded At/Performed by: Air Studios & Abbey Road Studios, London
Label: Varese Sarabande
Additional Music By: Lorne Balfe, Paul Mounsey, Dominic Lewis.
Orchestrated By: John Ashton Thomas, Dave Metzger, Rick Giovinazzo, Andrew Kinney, Gavin Greenaway, Tommy Laurence, Germaine Franco.
Conducted By: Gavin Greenaway.
Produced By: Hans Zimmer and John Powell.
Sequels in animation were a rarely treaded prospect in the world of filmmaking. With the unprecedented success of the first Kung Fu Panda film, as well as a surprisingly loyal fan following of all ages worldwide, the eponymous Po would return three years later in 2011 to continue his tale as the foretold Dragon Warrior. The second film, KUNG FU PANDA 2 garnered more positive response from critics for its lively, quirkier narrative that seamlessly integrated a rather moving backstory for its protagonist, as well as a stronger villain anchored sublimely by Gary Oldman, a rather methodological but nonetheless sinister peacock. Yet another arsenal of striking animation would result, and the expanded narrative followed the otherwise carefree, if not slightly more responsible panda as he begins to uncover the shrouded truth beneath his forgotten past, and how that transpires him against Lord Shen, a surprisingly genocidal peacock who seeks nothing but the prolonged extinction of pandas and ultimately, the Dragon Warrior himself. With themes of adoption, troubled identity and acceptance serving as the undertones, the sequel was a deserved success.
The return of friends Hans Zimmer and John Powell would bode well with the musical aspect of the film; much was to appreciate about their efforts for the first film. Many of the themes that they established would be expectedly carried over to the second film, and their thematic continuity shines among a new set of cues and identities carved by both them and the three other additional writers. Arguably, their collaborative fluidity is stronger, and hence, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a stronger sequel score that benefits from an unspecified presence of musical minds. When you encompass the score for Kung Fu Panda 2 as a whole, it stands tall over its predecessor in consistency, though the singular highlights are reduced. The handling of themes is well balanced and the newer material is appreciable in every regard, but there’s just that one element missing that pushes it away from the highest rating possible. The orchestra’s influence is raw and robust, infusing a higher quality of muscular and dynamic construct, and the mixing is of a high calibre. It’s especially pleasing to hear Oogway’s theme in the opening cue, “Ancient China/ Story of Shen”, with more ethnical beauty highlighted by the erhu in brackets towards the 1-minute mark. The strings help inject a sense of tranquillity into the piece and the choir coos Po’s theme before a harsh build-up results in troubled tones. Shen’s rage is characterised by plucking mandolin and a rather steady brass motif, with frantic tension.
The contemporary tones are present rather jubilantly in “Dumpling Warrior”, with the playful Valley of Peace theme making a mark in a brief cue. Zimmer brings a shakuhachi flute, puffing tension before exploding in a harmonically satisfying burst of the Inner Peace 5-note motif in the similarly titled “Inner Peace”– much of the early cues are rather short, but represent a better sense of development in their parts. The comedic material is better balanced this time round, and the infectious mandolin returns to open “Musicians Village”, Powell’s fast strings and meter changes audibly evident. The rather spirited treatment of the Furious Five theme deserves a mention of merit. That being said, Zimmer returns the epic nature of Oogway’s theme briefly in “Save Kung Fu”, toying with Po’s identity rather innocently, with glockenspiel and pizzicato strings. His ethnical Eastern tendencies are successfully maintained since his powerful effort for The Last Samurai– a career best. The treatments of the themes are more energetic, but there is room for more flourished poignancy too. Near the three-minute mark, the same striking strings are evocative of Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon (with all its superb vigour and muscularity).
The orchestra is more dynamic than before, with first-class percussive and brass material to be heard in the sixth track, “Daddy Issues”, and it’s good to hear that choir again- in this cue, the shrieking renditions for the villain are absent, and are instead replaced by more mysterious, melancholic portions. As was the case with the first score, there is a bed of electronics underneath the bulk of the orchestra, subtly pulsating the scenes. “Stealth Mode” features some humorous writing, with twanging mandolins and riveting flutes, which works in part to its focused chord progressions- the cue blends oriental tradition, as well as a fleeting amount of silliness to
accompany it. More of the comic tendencies would be heard in “Gongmen Jail”, during which you’ll reason that both composers took a leaf out of Zimmer’s stylebook heard previously in the Madagascar films, the wah-wah pedal employed rather cunningly with Lalo Schiffrin –esque virtue. Powell’s mannerism shines beautifully in “Rickshaw Chase” – undoubtedly the most rapidly written cue for the film, with all its grandeur and fluttering vibraphone movement. Yet another statement of the Furious Five theme leads to a rather amusing, if not worryingly joyful version of Po’s theme, intelligently conveying the combined shenanigans that the characters indulge in. The main villain theme for Shen arrives in “Po and Shen / Face to Face”- the Morricone-laden atmosphere is clear in its portions, the woodwinds emulating many of his iconic Western riffs. Surprisingly, the lower regions are more menacing and brooding for an animation film, perhaps a signature of Zimmer’s creative identity. Thankfully, the rather optimistic funk of the “Hero” cue from the first score is carefully manipulated here, overshadowing the villainous presence. This requires more patience, but listeners will be rewarded with a vibrant, tango-like Eastern bombastic movement that powerfully echoes “The Bridge” from the Furious Five’s perspective. More of Shen’s material would be heard in “Fireworks Factory”, and “Invasion Begins”. There is an element of Powell’s pizazz to be heard in “More Cannons!”– an appropriately explosive cue that benefits from its courageous rhythm and heist-like mandolin pluckings. The choir shines yet again in the latter half, and strike more powerfully in later cues. Things turn rather dark at the final minute, its superb strings and pounding drums ending abruptly. Po’s flashback is painfully explored in “Fireworks Factory” in brief statements, with whining strings emphasising Shen’s taunting of the Panda being oblivious to his horrific past- strong woodwind work and relaxed strings help denote this. The real treat is “Po Finds the Truth”, a rousing yet tragic blend of curiosity and darkness as cuter moments in the early seconds are destroyed by Zimmer’s barrage of drums, and rather terrifying strings to suit the heart-breaking nature of Po’s mother sacrificing herself out of unquestionable maternal love to save Po.
Like the first score, the final three tracks before the song at the end are saved for the climax; “Invasion Begins” toys with low bass and childlike woodwinds to convey the escalating tension. Some of the more melodramatic string portions can be heard, and a rather obnoxious rumbling percussive riff is repeated for good measure. Powell stamps his signature in this track, as well as its successive cue, “Zen Ball Master”. Was the separation of the penultimate three tracks really necessary? Couldn’t we benefit from one lengthy suite? The horns and trumpets are particularly triumphant in addressing Po’s panda theme near the 1:10 mark, and the motif is successfully stated several times in a pleasant, harmonically pleasing style. The Western influence is strong in this cue- with backing acoustic guitars and a driving movement. A deeper, poignant rendition of Oogway’s theme is carried intimately by strings and flutes at the 3:35 mark, inducing a lush, romantic sense of ethnic beauty into the cue with lovely results. The gorgeous 5-note idea for inner peace returns at 5:20, before being expanded by frantic trumpets and mandolin. In summary, much of the cue is dedicated to the use of brass as a presence. The penultimate cue, “My Fist Hungers For Justice” is one that will run goosebumps down the nerves of fans of both composers, with a conclusive battle treatment performed in vintage martial arts fashion, once again indulging in vibrant, emotional harmonic pleasure to finish things off. The soft woodwinds and heartbreaking strings will evoke many tears even from stoic listeners- this really is the masterpiece cue of the score, Zimmer and Powell unashamedly employing a soothing template. The choir adds a strong sense of backing atmosphere to the wondrous ending of the cue, and glorious results are achieved. As for “Dumpling Warrior Remix”, though incessantly funky and melodic in terms of arrangement, it’s highly unlikely that the cue will garner the same level of appreciation as the rest of the score, so gleefully extrovert in its pop-like material. Minor faults forgiven, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a highly rewarding sequel score to behold for both fans and casual listeners alike, and given its loyalty to thematic ideas, exploration of further motifs and a satisfying range of instrumentation, it pushes the expectations understandably higher for any possible entries to come next in the franchise.
(all music written by Hans Zimmer and John Powell)
1) Ancient China / Story of Shen (2:43)
2) Dumpling Warrior (1:19)
3) Inner Peace (2:25)
4) Musicians Village (1:19)
5) Save Kung Fu (3:41)
6) Daddy Issues (4:22)
7) Stealth Mode (4:04)
8) Gongmen Jail (2:40)
9) Rickshaw Chase (2:36)
10) Po and Shen / Face to Face (5:58)
11) More Cannons (2:59)
12) Fireworks Factory (6:48)
13) Po Finds the Truth (5:03)
14) Invasion Begins (2:37)
15) Zen Ball Master (7:21)
16) My Fist Hungers For Justice (4:54)
17) Dumpling Warrior Remix (3:30)