Kung Fu Panda. It was the high concept that launched a million groans -- this is what passed for kid flicks in 2008? Well, lo and behold, that tale of a tubby outsider discovering his hidden martial arts potential turned out to be a winning little cartoon with surprisingly well-crafted action sequences to boot. Cut to 2011 and Kung Fu Panda 2, which nearly matches the original in charm and kicks.
At this point, Po (voiced by Jack Black) has found his place among the Furious Five, handily saving the day alongside Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), and Viper (Lucy Liu). However, the arrival of vengeful peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) has Po questioning his fuzzy heritage (pun semi-intended) -- after all, having a noodle-cooking goose (James Hong) for a father is a bit of a tip-off that Po’s parents have been long gone.
It’s half-mission movie, half-identity quest as Po and friends set out to stop Lord Shen, and while the introduction of a super-serious peacock as villain does merit some giggles, his character proves to be a more fluid fighter than imagined and just as psychologically tormented as his opponent. Not to overstate it, but Panda 2 devotes almost too much time on Po’s repressed backstory, invoking the cuddliest notions of genocide without terrifying the target audience. Adults who easily piece the plot together may grow weary of the prolonged revelations, but it’s admittedly critical that affable, naïve Po not be driven by the same vindictive desires as our baddie by figuring things out too early on.
With that said, when it’s focused on a little less talk and a little more action, Jennifer Yuh’s sequel is on fine footing (and in its 3-D presentation, it actually earns its surcharge by adding a welcome depth of field to already lush storybook landscapes and clear-headed combat scenes). None of the action set-pieces best the first film’s dumpling tussle or prison escape, for example, but the crew’s efforts to scale a toppling tower and Po’s high-speed rickshaw chase through a local village prove to be equally inspired and dynamic in execution.
The script by Panda 1 scribes Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger relies on a familiar gunpowder plot with which to give Shen his threat, but it values character-inspired comic beats and knowing genre winks over the anachronistic cultural references that once defined the Dreamworks Animation brand. (Though the film does indulge in one sly video game reference, it’s a nice sight gag for the parents to enjoy more than their kids will.)
What’s curious is the structural decision to have our furry friend and the Furious Five defeated time and time and time again before ultimately gaining the upper hand, as opposed to the usual solitary setback for our heroes. Again, this isn’t the bleakest film by any stretch, but a curious effort has been made to undercut the day-saving formula and ramp the stakes up a bit more than usual.
The returning voice cast doesn’t bring as much verve to the table as before, occasionally shooting for more emotional nuance instead (especially Black, Jolie, and Hong). Oldman is aptly menacing, Dustin Hoffman is briefly sage as returning guru Shifu, and Michelle Yeoh is nicely playful as a soothsayer, while Jean-Claude Van Damme, Danny McBride, Dennis Haybert, and others round out the ensemble with the ease that comes with a decent paycheck.
Considering this is the first of five (!) proposed sequels, Kung Fu Panda 2 could have fared a bit worse. At least for now, the adventures of our hungry, hungry hero still feel fresh and fun, and one can only hope that his forthcoming exploits will prove to be just as disarming.