Kung Fu Panda 2
What It Is
“Long ago,” Kung Fu Panda 2 begins, a young peacock found himself rejected by his royal parents. His story might have been sad, except that he reacts badly — angry and vengeful, he leaves his parents’ castle full of venom, suggesting that his parents were right to kick him out.
Just after a narrator tells this story, over a show of traditional paper puppets, another, parallel story also commences. The star of the first film, panda Po (Jack Black), is having flashbacks to his own childhood, when he too was abandoned by his parents. The flashbacks make his eyes roll and break his concentration, so that he’s unable to practice his beloved kung fu. Even worse, he’s unable to vanquish villains who assault the village where he’s been living and training since the first film.
To resolve his problem, Po heads home to Mr. Ping (James Hong), the goose he’s always believed to be his father. Though Mr. Ping is suitably surprised that it’s taken Po so long to guess he might not be the son of a goose, he’s also unable to help much: baby Po appeared on his doorstep, he says, in a radish basket, without a note. Even though Po might like to ponder this, he’s unable to take the time: the peacock of the other abandoned child story — now named Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) — has been planning to take over China.
Specifically, he means to do this with a number of guns he’s designed and forced a pack of laboring wolves to make, stuck away inside a dark cave full of shadows and smoke and smelting fires. He also has a particular anxiety about pandas, as his resident soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) foretells his demise at the hands of one.
Encouraged by the Yoda-like Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Po and the Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) — journey to confront Shen. This even as Po worries out loud that it might be hard to use kung fu to stop a weapon that is intended to stop kung fu.
The team’s travels and battles are punctuated by conversations concerning “inner peace.” Indeed, as much as Po may now glory in being the Dragon Warrior, skilled in fighting and admired for his legendary victories, he must also sort out his past — as it is entangled with Shen’s — in order to feel that peace.
Why It’s Fun
The kung fu warriors are fierce and loyal to one another, sometimes appalled by Po’s behavior and sometimes impressed. Their mutual appreciation and good humor, along with their love of kung fu and special gifts (the crane flies, the tigress bounds, the viper seems very stretchy), make this team a lively, family-like unit, at times competitive and always supportive.
The frequent, pow-pow action scenes are propulsive, if a little frantic.
The movie features some typical uses of 3D — objects coming at viewers include some cakes Po has stuffed into his mouth and then expels abruptly — as well as some more inspired uses of the depth (as in Po’s late excursion into a forest, when he’s recovering after a battle).
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of the first movie will be happy to see Po and his friends again. Jack Black brings his signature rambunctiousness to the role, making Po both earnest and comic. He’s easily distracted from his mission, by dumplings and cakes, usually. His affection for Mr. Ping is charming, and the scenes between father and son are among the movie’s most appealing — in part they grant some breathing space amid all the fighting.
Some viewers might be looking forward to voice performances by the big-name stars in the cast. But as in the first film, Po and Tigress do most of the talking: Chan’s Monkey has just a couple of lines, and Hoffman’s wise and amusing Master Shifu, who was central to Po’s previous development, appears here only very briefly at start and finish.
What To Be Aware Of
This installment features darker themes and effects: Po’s flashbacks are harrowing, and Shen’s vengeance plot is brutal. The last battle scene features explosions and general devastation.
The thematic darkness is made literal in the 3D version: while the animation is colorful and often beautiful, the 3D glasses affect the view adversely. If you can see it in 2D, that might be preferable.
The parallel stories of abandoned children will be familiar from any number of fairy tales, but they’re not much fun either. The paper puppets version, with a narrator, is designed to keep viewers at a distance — so you won’t identify with little Shen or feel his upset (he’s the villain, after all). Po’s distress is more emphatically visual, and so potentially worrisome for younger viewers. (You might compare his situation with that of Harry Potter, beleaguered by Lord Voldemort.)
The one-eyed Wolf Boss (Danny McBride), Shen’s main minion, is especially dark and ugly. He holds a nasty grudge against Po, whom he characterizes as “big and furry, soft and squishy, kind of push and cuddly.”
When Po and his teammates are arrested and tossed in prison, they meet a couple of famous kung fu masters, Master Storming Ox (Dennis Haysbert) and Master Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme). They’re so alarmed by Shen’s guns that they prefer to stay locked in their cell rather than fight back, and they also suggest that Po surrender to Shen.
6 out of 10
Kung Fu Panda 2
Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Cast: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, James Hong, Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride, Dennis Haysbert, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Victor Garber, Jackie Chan
Studio: Paramount/DreamWorks Animation
US Premiere: May 26, 2011
UK Premiere: June 10, 2011