Once upon a time in ancient China, a young peacock was to inherit the throne to the kingdom his parents had set out for him. But one fateful prophecy given by a soothsayer drove him to the brink of madness and caused him to commit genocide on all the pandas in the land, for it is a black and white force that is destined to destroy him. His callous actions revolted his family and the only solution was that he be cast out from his kingdom. But the peacock made a solemn vow that he would return someday and exact revenge on those who scorned him.
Born is the villainous Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), the newest number one enemy of the Furious Five in “Kung Fu Panda 2,” the sequel to the Dreamworks animated hit of 2008. In the first film, the portly panda protagonist Po (Jack Black) was unexpectedly chosen to be the Dragon Warrior and had to master the ways of traditional kung fu in order to protect his village. Now that he knows how to throw a few defensive punches, wise Master Shifu’s (Dustin Hoffman) next lesson is to help him achieve inner peace.
This jolly panda’s key to victory is overcoming an existential crisis of sorts. Where did he come from and what destiny awaits him? Which leads us to the big elephant in the room that was never acknowledged in the first movie. Did you notice something a little bit strange about Po’s father, Mr. Ping (James Hong)? Maybe the fact that he himself was a stork fathering a fully-grown panda. I may not know much about animal biology, but that sounds like one big case of unlikelihood in regards to common breeding methods. But Po receives the news early in the sequel that he was abandoned behind Ping’s noodle shop as an infant and was taken in by the unsuspecting stork as his surrogate son.
But Po is forced to step into action when Lord Shen assembles a legion of cronies and sets out to invade kingdom after kingdom with the latest technological advancement to bring an end to conventional combat: the gunpowder cannon. He is out destroying villages, holding the greatest martial arts masters captive and must be stopped. These given circumstances prompt the panda to utter the great line “how can kung fu stop something that stops kung fu?”
Of course, Po is not alone on this journey to Shen’s whereabouts; far from it, in fact. The rest of the Furious Five—consisting of Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross)—travel many miles to save their land, and maybe even kung fu as they know it, from assured destruction. It seems a little paltry to cast such big names for supporting characters that have appreciably less dialogue, but what do I know? Maybe the threequel will have more in store for them.
For me, evaluating “Kung Fu Panda 2” in my head over the last couple of days was like a course to achieve inner peace. Trying to come up with a final verdict this time was like an unremitting balancing act of pros versus cons.
The rich animation is unquestionably the biggest advantage to witnessing the film on the big screen. The kung fu-centric sequences are polished to perfection; they are zippy, exciting and loaded with moments of brilliant choreography. But even the low-key things caught my attention: the careful detail of Po’s fur coat, the texture and splendor of the gorgeous landscapes and my personal favorite, the feathers on Lord Shen that are utilized like throwing knives.
Something that I thought was really special was the flawless employment of 2D artwork. The prologue is told in the fashion of ancient Chinese shadow puppetry and the traditional hand-drawn style scenes representing Po’s past are positively stunning and refreshing to look at. And here is the rare example of a worthwhile 3D conversion. The color may be dimmed, but the film’s glowing palette remains potent. There was never that unbearable moment where it was too dark to see any of the action.
There are a couple of hindrances, however. Being a sequel to a unique animated action picture, it is thwarted by a small case of Been-There-Done-That syndrome. The basic goals and the villains in both films are pretty much equal and the boundaries set by the first film are never expanded upon in this installment. Also, the writing here is not as clever as its predecessor. We get more than a few laughs, chuckles and smiles, but the material during the action sequences could be more defined.
But in the end, I had to tip my hat to “Kung Fu Panda 2” for the elevated level of tenderness and heart that went into creating the scenes between Po and Ping, which were genuinely moving. Not to mention I have the decency not to give this film the same star rating as “The Hangover Part II,” which continues to become less and less funny the more I think about it. Unlike that follow-up, this one is actually worth the time for fans of the first. I give “Kung Fu Panda 2” a marginal recommendation.