Though the plot-driving crisis of Kung Fu Panda 2 inspires Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu to intone, “This could be the end of kung fu,” don’t believe it. Forget it, kids. It’s Sequel-town. Though the proliferation of sequels has already gotten Summer 2011 off to a rocky start, there’s no need to blame the latest picture CGI-animated 3D adventure from DreamWorks Animation. Kung Fu Panda 2 is agreeable enough fare for families craving a little action, comedy, and action-comedy. Though the gang’s all here for part two, the show belongs to Jack Black as the roly-poly title character Po.
We’re back in ancient China, where animals—including peacock villain Lord Shen (practiced baddie Gary Oldman) and Po’s adoptive goose dad Mr. Ping (James Hong)—inexplicably rule the roosts. Under Master Shifu, Po continues to train with the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross) and Monkey (Jackie Chan). But Lord Shen and his wolf army stir up trouble, just as Po has begun his search for inner peace.
Asking himself the age-old question “Who am I?” Po discovers that Lord Shen, surprisingly, may hold the answer, having been on the scene when Po’s panda parents abandoned him in infancy. Even as he seeks the truth, the “Dragon Warrior” must stop Lord Shen from conquering China with his newfangled cannon. It’s enough to make a bear say, “Skadoosh!”
The franchise is still a collection of kung fu clichés, but Black’s comic invention and the dynamic, textured, richly hued animation still go a long way. In fact, the visuals can be downright ADD, with plenty of whip-fast fighting and an eye-popping rickshaw chase that gleefully exceeds the speed limit. New director Jennifer Yuh makes a smart choice to switch to some beautifully old-school hand-drawn animation for flashback reveries of Po’s origin story, played for poignancy.
No expense has been spared in bringing this cash cow—sorry, bear—back to the big screen, from the superstar yakkers to award-winning composers Hans Zimmer and John Powell. The big disappointment of Kung Fu Panda 2 is its underuse of the supporting cast. Though Jolie’s character serves as Po’s principal sounding board, the rest of the Furious Five hardly ever pipe up this time, and the hilariously dry Hoffman unfortunately sits out most of the film.
There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle; as with other Summer 2011 sequels, Kung Fu Panda 2 lacks the freshness and frisson of discovery. But kids will be glad to spend more time with Po, and the message of emotional self-discipline (butt-kicking aside) should please parents. As for the bean-counters, they’ll be glad to know that the picture ends with a strong suggestion of…a sequel.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]