Some of the best, most emotionally touching films coming to theaters lately are animated. The filmmakers have — through clever writing and lifelike artwork — somehow learned how to tap into all of the basic human responses that live action cinema seems to struggle with. Perhaps it’s the freedom of a rendered world where cinematographers can setup impossible shots with ease and characters never fail to convey the proper facial emotion. Whatever the reason may be, it’s a safe bet these days that audiences will get their money’s worth watching animation and Kung Fu Panda 2 continues that trend. There is absolutely nothing to dislike about this film and plenty about it to love.

As the epilogue explains, when the citizenry of ancient China discovered gun powder, they rejoiced because they could create fireworks. The emperor’s son, Shen (Gary Oldman), realized that gunpowder could be used as a weapon, however, and turned it against his enemies. When The Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) warned Shen that his downfall would be brought about by one in black and white, Shen ordered the slaughter of all the pandas in the kingdom. Horrified, his parents banished him. Years later, having mastered the art of forging cannons, Shen returns to eradicate Kung Fu and rule over all of China. Standing in his way is Po (Jack Black) and the Furious Five, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross) and Viper (Lucy Liu). They’ll team up with new friends along the way and Po will finally learn why his father is a goose.

A review can’t say enough good things about Kung Fu Panda 2. Everything is absolutely stellar, beginning with the visuals. Every frame of this film is beautiful to look at from its early Chinese shadow theater epilogue presented in 2D to its frenetic kung fu action sequences presented in proper 3D. The action in this film also seems to outdo most of its live action counterparts, with characters performing breathtaking martial arts and acrobatics that will leave children speechless and adults on the edge of their seats. The animators also take a lot of creative license with the visuals, including nightmares rendered in 2D, beautiful Zen-like locales with lush scenery and frightening forges with pits full of molten metal. Your eyes will never grow bored.

It’s this creativity that infuses every aspect of the film with its wonderful spirit. For instance, although every character is an animal, they aren’t simply stand-ins for humans. They all use their animal traits imaginatively to their advantage. Shen, a peacock, can hurl razor sharp feathers. Viper performs kung fu by snapping her body like a whip. Crane can use his Wings of Justice to create super gusts of wind. There’s a sense of watching superheroes unleashing their powers and it’s fun to see what they’ll do next.

The writing is also superb and the comedy is ironic. While Po is the obvious hero in the film, he’s still very much a comedic character and the writers were wise to temper his badass-ness with perfectly timed comedy. The bits are so good that it’d be a shame to spoil them here, so suffice to say that all viewers of all ages will definitely find something to genuinely laugh out loud about. On the flipside, there’s also a touching story about finding inner peace amidst horrible devastation that will probably elicit a few sniffles in the audience.

The entire cast does a great job inhabiting their characters, but it’s hard to say that they’re actually acting. Jack Black’s real life personality definitely comes through, which is probably what audiences are looking for. The other comedic actors, like Chan, Rogen and Cross, are also easily recognizable and it would make sense if the writers wrote for the actors rather than the characters. Overall, however, the voice acting is almost unnecessary since the animation is so good. Every character is amazingly expressive and it’s their physical expressions that sell their roles.

Finally, the 3-D special effects are definitely worth the cost of admission. There’s enough minutia flying out of the screen and into audiences’ laps to really make them feel like they’re in the film. It never gets gimmicky, however, and no one ever intentionally pokes swords or spears at the camera. The 3-D in the movie is just an excellent complement to an already superb film.

See Kung Fu Panda 2 as soon as you can and bring the whole family.