Viewers of “Kung Fu Panda” couldn’t help but notice that the main character was a panda, yet his father was a goose. This can be a touchy subject, and one doesn’t like to make assumptions, but it seemed likely that the panda was probably adopted. The movie never made so much as a casual reference to the multi-species family, a deliberate omission that I found charming.
Turns out they were saving it for the sequel! “Kung Fu Panda 2” tackles the story of Po’s origins and neatly incorporates it with a larger story that fits the action-saga mold. The humor isn’t as sharp as before, and the film’s efforts to be emotionally resonant don’t quite work — I think Jack Black is a hindrance there — but the action is exciting and exceptionally well-animated. For once I didn’t resent being obligated to see it in 3D!
Po (voice of Jack Black) is now a local celebrity due to his heroic exploits with the Furious 5, the cadre of martial artists who helped him realize his destiny as the prophesied Dragon Warrior in the last film. His goose father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), still happily operating his noodle restaurant in their medieval Chinese village, couldn’t be prouder.
But there is a new threat lurking. An evil peacock by the name of Shen (Gary Oldman), long ago exiled by his royal parents for some heinous acts, has discovered how to achieve his deadly goals through the use of gunpowder, which has heretofore been used only for peaceful things like fireworks. All the villagers have to defend themselves with is old-fashioned kung fu. How will they thwart Shen’s designs??
As indicated, Po’s origin story is connected to all of this. It’s presented in flashbacks lovingly rendered with old-style hand-drawn animation (or at least animation that looks old-style and hand-drawn), and the way it fits with the larger story of the evil peacock suggests that this sequel doesn’t exist solely because the first one made money. It would appear that returning writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger actually had an IDEA for how to flesh out Po’s story, not just a financial incentive to do so.
The director, Jennifer Yuh, an experienced animator taking her first turn at the helm, oversees a series of action scenes as lively and thrilling as any flesh-and-blood martial-arts flick. Po’s works with the Furious 5 — tigress (Angelina Jolie), monkey (Jackie Chan), mantis (Seth Rogen), crane (David Cross), and snake (Lucy Liu) — is choreographed and executed with exhilarating precision without losing its sense of fun. (This is a kids’ movie, after all.) The only conceivable valid use of 3D is in animation, and this is a prime example of it.
So the story is well-crafted and competently carried out. I’m less enamored of the dialogue, which includes about a thousand references to Po being fat and/or hungry — not actual jokes, usually, but mere references, or gags where the punchline is that, yep, sure enough, Po wants to stop and get something to eat. That’s how the Garfield comic strip operates, you’ll notice, and nobody wants to see a feature-length movie version of that. The way Po pesters the peaceful old master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is likewise tiresome, and unworthy of the intelligence manifest in other aspects of the film.
And I have to confess that while the characters are generally amusing (insofar as they’re utilized — the monkey and snake barely do anything), I don’t care that much about them. Jack Black’s perpetual mugging precludes any emotional attachment to Po regardless of his tragic origin; I swear you can HEAR Black’s eyebrows waggling. Po’s relationship to the members of the Furious 5 isn’t explored much, either.
But hey, it’s fun, the kids will like it, and it doesn’t condescend to them the way a lot of children’s entertainment does. You could do a lot worse than to take your goslings or panda cubs to see it some Saturday afternoon.
B- (1 hr., 30 min.; )