‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ is the kind of movie that gives sequels a good name. Helmed by first time director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, the new installment isn’t a simple rehash, but makes good on the promises of the original and pushes the franchise to new heights.
Not pausing to recap, Kung-Fu Panda 2 opens with a traditionally animated prologue that tells the tale of the corrupt Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a vain and paranoid peacock who, in the face of a worrisome prophecy, took his army and crushed an entire species out of fear. Fast-forward to a time shortly after the events of the first film, which finds Po firmly installed as the Dragon Warrior and bonded fast with the Furious Five, the legendary heroes he once idolized. When word comes that Lord Shen has built an arsenal of devastating weaponry (think the advent of the cannon) and is threatening to destroy the very foundation of his sacred art form, Po exclaims ‘Aww, but I just got kung-fu!’
Wise Master Shi-Fu (Dustin Hoffman) understands the danger and seeks to help Po reach the next level of his training; inner peace. If this is the second act of an animated kung-fu opera, then this is the chapter where the established hero must confront the reality of his origins. You didn’t really think that daffy goose was the panda’s father, did you? Also an orphan of sorts, Po’s comrade and fellow warrior Tigress (Angelina Jolie) helps the panda sift through his emotions. In her eyes we see the concern and understanding of a friend, and in a tidbit the film keeps subtle, possibly something more. That the banner that flies over Shen’s army ignites dark, vital memories in Po’s psyche suggests that the answer to his heritage lies with the threat now spreading across China. The road ahead leads directly to Shen and his wolf soldiers, who hide the secret to the panda’s lineage.
Kung-Fu Panda 2 represents another leap forward for Dreamworks animation. KP2 is a different beast than their other efforts; it’s almost all action, with the story woven into the momentum, and the visual palette in constant, kinetic motion. There’s an immersive sense of discovery built into the film that has everything to do with spatial organization and very little to do with the extraneous 3-D. Director Nelson has served as an artist and animator on such adult-oriented fantasies as Dark City and the Spawn television series, and her mastery of impressionistic comic-book imagery is put to great use on the large-scale set pieces. When Shen’s cannons decimate an ornamental tower, the resulting impact sends it slipping and sliding down the city’s stacked temples as Po and his comrades race through the collapsing rooms to safety. Achieving this in live-action would be terrifyingly complex and difficult, but here it has a sense of grand surrealism.
The character animation and the all-star voice work go hand-in-hand with the action to give the story a deeper resonance.Black has never been my favorite comedian but when his puckish intonations and boisterous warble are combined with the rounded, hulking slopes of Po the Panda the result is a hero both charmingly buffoonish and still courageously capable. His ability to shift between the two make Po less the lovable lunk of the original and more an off-kilter goofball with stellar abilities; Jack Burton with a furry pelt of black and white, if you will.
Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, David Cross and Lucy Liu all do fine work as the Furious Five, this time joined by Jean Claude VanDamme as a cringing croc and Dennis Haysbert as a faded water-buffalo both trying to hold onto their honor in the face of changing times. Dustin Hoffman’s Shifu has far too little screen time but the actor still takes the time to make his lines zing with earned wisdom and zesty wit. Gary Oldman’s Shen is the most visually compelling new addition; his lithe and wispy frame lack Tai-Lung’s formidable girth, but when his sword-like tail feathers go up, he’s a vision of elegant death. Michelle Yeoh shows up as a fortune-telling goat, filling the mystical hole left by Randall Kim’s turtle prophet Oogway.
I was a surprised fan of the first film, but Panda 2 matches that one in artistry and energy and ups the ante when it comes to the titular character. There is a scene where Po finally confronts Shen, and his dialogue with the conflicted warlord is one completely unique to the martial art’s genre from which it draws; how Po receives the figure who caused his pain says much about the nobility and heart inside the big, lumpy frame. It says a lot too about the movie he finds himself in. It might be absurd to suggest that a sturdy series could be cobbled from the life of a tubby, geeked-out panda, but Nelson and company make a third or fourth adventure seem not only likely, but welcome.