Kung Fu Panda 2 (United States, 2011)May 28, 2011
The average animated sequel is content to apprehend the successful elements from its predecessor and regurgitate them. The result, no matter how enjoyable, often drips with an overly familiar precipitation. Dreamworks' biggest animated franchise, Shrek, suffered mightily from this problem. Thankfully, the creative team behind the Kung Fu Panda movies has elected to move the series in a different direction. Kung Fu Panda 2 brings back nearly the entire cast of characters from the first movie but, instead of recycling the original storyline, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Burger and first-time director Jennifer Yuh use this opportunity to expand the main character's back story and explore some dark corners and crevices of the world in which these talking animals exist. The production is still family-friendly and includes the kind of easily accessible humor many kids (and more than a few adults) love about animated fare, but there's no getting away from some of the adult themes that crop up. This is the most mature animated feature since Rango.
At the end of Kung Fu Panda, panda bear Po (voice of Jack Black) came into his birthright as the Dragon Warrior. As Kung Fu Panda 2 begins, he is continuing his training under the tutelage of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), whose latest lesson about finding "inner peace" is eluding Po. Accompanied by the Furious Five - Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) - Po sets out on a mission to foil a group of bandits terrorizing a nearby village. The bad guys are after the metal needed by their diabolical master, Lord Shen the peacock (Gary Oldman), whose Weapon of Mass Destruction requires it. In addition to having an unquenchable thirst for world domination, Shen is deathly afraid of pandas; his soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) has prophesied he will be killed by one. So, many years ago in an act possibly inspired by King Herod, he attempted genocide of the entire panda population. When he learns that the Furious Five is led by one who got away, he makes it his number one goal to capture and eliminate Po.
The biggest narrative exploration of Kung Fu Panda 2 is to explain how Po ended up as the son of a noodle restaurateur goose. This story, which is told via snatches of flashbacks, is laced with tragedy. It also emphasizes the movie's central theme of accepting oneself. Kung Fu Panda 2 also notes that the concepts of "parents" and "family" have less to do with genetics than with love and nurturing. These ideas may lack the sophistication one finds in Pixar films, but they will resonate with many younger members of the audience.
Jack Black once again shows his excellence as a voice actor. His rendering of Po is more likeable and less cartoonish than many of his live-action characters (including Gulliver in last year's misfire, Gulliver's Travels). This may have something to do with the respect shown to Po by the screenplay, which identifies with him rather than attempting to make him the butt of every joke. Black is complemented by a cast of mostly well-known faces. There's some platonic (with possible future romantic implications) chemistry between Po and Angelina Jolie's Tigress who, like Po, enjoys the introduction of a back story. Gary Oldman's voice alone makes Shen a malevolent entity. Dustin Hoffman's Master Shifu barely sounds like the actor; the same cannot be said of Seth Rogen's Mantis. (Shouldn't he be playing a hornet?)
Visually, the movie is as good as any animated endeavor out there. Having seen Kung Fu Panda 2 in 2-D, I can't comment about the 3-D effects, but I can state the way I saw it offered a bright, colorful palette that would have lost some of its luster when seen through a lens darkly. In additional to the usual manner of digital animation, Yuh employs hand-drawn imagery (or an excellent facsimile) for many of the flashback scenes and a "stick puppet" style to present narrative background. It's a fun movie to look at, especially without the encumbrance of the 3-D glasses. (In fairness to Dreamworks, it should be noted that they have been at the forefront of making animated 3-D movies watchable, surpassing even Pixar. Their How to Train Your Dragon remains the Avatar of animated 3-D.)
Kung Fu Panda 2 ends with what assumes is a direct lead-in to Kung Fu Panda 3. Normally, this sort of thing makes me cringe but, if the same care to expand the canvas is lavished upon the next installment of this franchise, the second sequel might be worth awaiting with anticipation rather than trepidation.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (United States, 2011)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger
Music: John Powell, Hans Zimmer