Kung Fu Panda 2

Big-budget sequels to popular original movies are like the children of successful parents – all too often they end up as victims of everyone else’s overbearing expectations.  Studios expect sequels to be bigger, better, and even more successful than their progenitors, even if the original movie didn’t have nearly as much demanded of it; they want a sequel to retain the charm and originality that presumably made the first one a hit, but don’t want the sequel to be too different lest it scare off fans of the first.  Is it any wonder that so many sequels are either terrible, or feel like expensive remakes of the original story with a few names and faces swapped out?  (THE HANGOVER PART II is the latest example of this second type.)

Jack Black and Angelina Jolie voice characters in Kung Fu Panda 2

Every so often, though, a sequel gets it right; taking advantage of the opportunity to not have to introduce the characters and situations, they can build organically on what came before, deepening the personalities and conflicts, enriching the drama, and making the original movie even better by association.  GODFATHER PART II, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, SPIDER-MAN 2, THE DARK KNIGHT – some of the best-loved movies of recent decades have been sequels that were better than their predecessors.  And while it’s too early to tell for sure, my impression is that KUNG FU PANDA 2 might be ready to join this company.

Jack Black and Angelina Jolie voice characters in Kung Fu Panda 2

When last we saw Po the portly panda (voice of Jack Black), he had become the prophesied Dragon Warrior and leader of the Furious Five, a band of kung-fu warriors that includes his friend Tigress (voice of Angelina Jolie).  Content to defend his isolated valley from the occasional pack of marauding wolves, Po is called back to the outside world when the machinations of the sinister peacock despot Lord Shen (voice of Gary Oldman) and his terrifying new invention – the cannon – threaten to engulf China and destroy kung-fu.  Called out to avenge the murdered Master Thundering Rhino, the Furious Five travel to Gongmen City and work to liberate it from Shen’s forces.

Gary Oldman in Kung Fu Panda 2

Along the way, however, Po learns some uncomfortable truths about his family history and his own birth when it is revealed that his father from the first film, the goose Ping, had adopted a baby panda found abandoned in a crate.  However, Po’s personal quest to uncover his own origins leads him to put himself at risk for the sake of answers and inadvertently threatens to jeopardize the entire mission; as Master Shifu (voice of Dustin Hoffman) repeatedly reminds him, success will require Po to find the inner peace that has so far eluded him, and reconcile with his past.

Angelina Jolie in Kung Fu Panda 2

Coming to terms with your own past and letting go of baggage are pretty weighty themes for a kids’ movie, but I’m happy to report that KUNG FU PANDA 2 deftly balances the character development with the action, humor and animated spectacle; Po’s quest is serious, but it adds to the suspense and the emotional payoff of the story.  Credit for a lot of this has to go to screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (and to an uncredited script polish by famed scribe Charlie Kaufman), but kudos are also owed to the film’s extensive cast.  I’ve been disappointed by a lot of DreamWorks’ animated movies in the past, often because it feels like they care more about stunt casting (“it’s Will Smith as a shark!”) than finding good voices that fit the roles.  That isn’t a problem here; the screen stars like Angelina Jolie and Dustin Hoffman turn in quality performances.  Even Jean-Claude Van Damme does decent work as the captured master Croc.

The animation is spectacular, as good as anything I’ve seen from Pixar, with vibrant colors and characters who move and express themselves visually in interesting and funny ways and without relying on the infamous “Dreamworks face.”  Here’s hoping that’s the start of a trend.  New director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who storyboarded several sequences in the original, crafts martial arts battles that are over-the-top and cartoony yet have a feeling of real weight and heft that eludes too many live-action directors.  The fights feel meaty; you can tell where everyone is and what they’re doing and what’s going on, all without a bunch of quick cuts or disorienting editing.  I can’t comment on the 3-D, as I saw it in the two regular dimensions, but the bottom line is that a movie as good as KUNG FU PANDA 2 doesn’t need a gimmick.


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