Thinking about it, there’s no reason a sequel shouldn’t be as good as the movie it follows: The filmmakers have had some time to learn from mistakes they made the first go-round; the characters are well-known, so more time can be spent on an interesting story instead of just set-up; and in the case of animation, the technology is only getting more advanced as time goes on.

Sure, there are some times that a re-tread works just fine (hello, The Hangover Part II), but when you can sit and enjoy a fresh, engrossing film that continues a story about as well as could be hoped (and then some) while also throwing in a whole bunch of new tricks, well… what could be better?

Case in point: Kung Fu Panda 2, which I’ll go on record as saying is even a little better than the first. The story has a nice depth to it, the action scenes are among the most entertaining of any animated movie, and none of the voice cast seemed content to just rest on his or her laurels and mail it in.

In a brief prologue we learn that an evil peacock named Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) has harnessed the power of fireworks (well… gunpowder) and is developing a big-time weapon. We also learn that he ordered the extermination of all pandas after a soothsayer predicted a black and white animal would lead to Lord Shen’s defeat. (We can only assume killer whales and skunks met the same fate).

…which brings us back to our hero. We begin to get a clearer picture of why Po (Jack Black) had no mother and a goose for a father in the first film.

As the ‘Dragon Warrior’, Po is now enjoying his time well-versed in the ways of Kung Fu, and he’s still hanging with his gang, the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Monkey (Jackie Chan).

When Lord Shen’s posse pillages a local town Po and his buds jump into action, but Po gets distracted (though I won’t say why), and the posse escapes. The Furious Five (plus one) then take it upon themselves to hunt down Lord Shen and bring peace to the land once more.

But this is more than just a good-guys-chase-bad-guys flick. It’s a multi-layered story that’s full of twists and turns and revelations. It’s sometimes dark and emotional (call it Empire to Kung Fu Panda’s Star Wars), but it never forgets its lighthearted side.

In Black’s more-than-capable hands, Po becomes a well-rounded (ba-dum-dum!) character. Very little of Kung Fu Panda 2 is played simply for laughs; there’s a smart humor at work here, and Black wisely reined in his performance to ensure Po never becomes a buffoon.

First-time director Jennifer Yuh (who was the Head of Story and an artist on the original film) has put together an instant classic, and just like that– Dreamworks Animation has emerged as a viable contender for Pixar’s crown. The animation in Kung Fu Panda 2 is first-rate; at times you’ll swear you’re watching live action (except for the whole ‘big-eyed panda who can talk’ bit), the kung fu choreography is incredibly fun to watch, and Yuh keeps the pace going at a brisk clip straight through ‘til the end. Suffice to say that the movie’s 90 minutes zip by faster than Po’s fists of fury. And the final scene’s promise that more adventures with Po and crew are on the way, well… may just be the best news you get at the cineplex this summer.

NOTE: Parents, Kung Fu Panda 2 has quite a few high-tension moments, and there are several deaths that are hinted at though never explicitly shown. It may be a little too much for, say, younger than age five or six.

4/5 stars