The first film was a surprising combination of The Shaw Brothers and an above-average Saturday morning cartoon. It took its moviemaking, and its martial arts mythology, seriously. Even with humor aimed more at the adolescent than the adult, the overall effect was one of respect, reverence, and real legitimated imagination. Sadly, only the third element in that alliterative triptych remains behind for this otherwise entertaining – and wholly unnecessary – sequel. This time around Kung Fu Panda 2 falls back into the lamentable formulas that make most CG animated efforts so irritating. Instead of continuing our fighting bear’s quest to become the ultimate Dragon Warrior, we get a standard stock villain, a questionable backstory, and enough Jack Black buffoonery to make up for the decided lack of such silliness during Part 1.
Po (Black) has settled into his role as Dragon Warrior and defender of the valley. He is a superstar, and along with the members of the Furious Five – Masters Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen) and Viper (Lucy Liu) – hes tackle random gangs of marauders and highwaymen. While their guide, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) struggles to find the key to inner peace, Po’s dad (James Hong) and his noodle shop are making a mint off his celebrity status. In a bit of a flashback rewinding, we learn that an evil peacock named Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), heir to the throne of Gongmen City and an expert in fireworks, has a prophecy inspired vendetta against all pandas. So he slaughters them and develops gunpowder as a means of destroying all kung fu and ruling the entirety of China…and perhaps, the world. Only Po and his pals can stop him, saving their land from domination and destruction.
Even with its attempted history and shadow puppet pretext, Kung Fu Panda 2 feels superfluous, It’s a bit rushed and incomplete. It’s like a decent idea taken to only moderate, middling ends. First time director Jennifer Yuh understands the genre. She was there at the birth of the first film, as well as other nominal efforts like Madagascar. Sadly, she only seemed to learn the “eye candy” and “kiddie comedy” parts of those productions, if anything. This Po repeat lacks the first film’s deference to all Asian martial arts movies that came before. It sidesteps previous themes of duty, family, honor, and loyalty to overemphasize head spinning 3D set-pieces and possible action figure tie-ins. Indeed, the desire to invoke the industry’s latest gimmickry takes what was before a believable level of fisticuffs and turns it into a combination of Aladdin’s magic carpet ride and smash cut madness.
Perhaps the biggest crime here is Kung Fu Panda 2‘s get by almost exclusively on its own commerciality. Put another way, the original movie didn’t really care about its chances at connecting with audiences. It simply showed its love of the Hong Kong epic and let the viewer fall under the source’s forcible allure as well. Here, suits are sitting back, watching the dividends and measuring the possible returns. As a result, Kung Fu Panda 2 panders. It goes for the lowest common denominator instead of investing the material with wit and wisdom. Po’s ancestry is a cheap storyline, a way of getting cute critters in danger sequences directly into the story. Similarly, Lord Shen’s reaction to his seer’s prophecy is so over the top and outrageous that when he tries to rationalize it, you don’t know if he’s serious or being sarcastic. Only an actor as good as Oldman could sell something so outrageous.
All complaints aside, this is still a very engaging and ultimately entertaining experience. The fall of Lord Shen’s castle is a tour de force of animation and execution, as is the sequence where Po takes a stand against the insane peacock’s mega machine. Smaller moments succeed as well, as when Tigress takes it upon herself to sympathize with Po’s personal plight, the 2D animation explaining the panda’s plight, or when we see the extent of the evil animal’s manufacturing prowess. But for all the shiny objects and suggested simplicity, Kung Fu Panda 2 still plays like a film made by committee – someone to oversee the voice work, another in charge of the marketing, and a bunch of middle men making decisions that have little to do with movies and much more to do with making money…lots of money.
Still, there is an infections level of fun to be found inside all the branding and bookkeeping. Black and his castmates clearly are having a blast, though the Furious Five get less screen time (and therefore, less character and comic development) than their ‘leader.’ Similarly, Hoffman’s Shifu shows up at the beginning and then is relegated to the sidelines for the majority of the movie. Only the loveable Lo Pan himself, James Hong, gets a chance to explore his goose-ly father figure. He has a nice moment of unforced sentiment that makes the rest of the attempted heartbreak that much more hokey. And yet, the bright colors and clever design work win us over, showing how important these elements are to the film’s effectiveness.
Of course, one can’t feel but a wee bit of nostalgia for what the original Kung Fu Panda accomplished. Like Dreamworks’ recent smash, the terrific How to Train Your Dragon, it was a labor of love built out of a desire to tell real stories in a solid cinematic setting. It wasn’t interested in fast food franchising or how many Facebook Farmville products it could connect to. While clearly aimed at the mainstream, it respected its source and hoped to be heralded right alongside the lavish lunacy of brothers Runme and Sir Run Run. In the end, it achieved those aims. This time around, Kung Fu Panda 2 just wants to be as popular as its pals Shrek and Rio. How sad.