Contributor: Henry T.
Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger
Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson
I did not think the original “Kung Fu Panda” was going to warrant a sequel. That turned out to be an entertaining little origin story that I felt did not need expansion on. But the story of Po the Dragon Warrior (voice of Jack Black) continues here, as he and the Furious Five Kung Fu warriors defend the Valley of Peace from another growing threat. The villain of this story is the evil Lord Shen (voice of Gary Oldman), a peacock who is fated to battle against Po and possesses a weapon that can eliminate kung fu forever. Along the way, Po gets to learn about his true panda origins with what happened to his real parents.
This film elects to jettison the more amusing elements in Po learning kung fu in lieu of sending him and the Furious Five on a mission to kick some butt and take names. Lord Shen doesn’t sound too menacing since he’s a peacock, but he’s got a bunch of wolves for henchmen that the Furious Five gladly take on while Po deals with Shen and his kung fu destruction weapon himself. There is a lot more action in this film than in the first, though it feels kind of rote now that we know Po is the Dragon Warrior. For the most part, he and the Furious Five are invulnerable and it sucks all of the suspense out of the action sequences. They are spectacular from a visual standpoint (a standout feature of the first film as well), but I had no doubt that Po and company would survive to the end. Plus, it’s practically predicted from the very beginning that Shen would be defeated by Po. It was just a matter of how Po does it that the film leaves up in question.
They do give Po one key weakness in his battle against Shen: His parents were killed at the hand of Shen when Po was just a child. Po doesn’t know this for the majority of the film and it gives the movie more emotional stakes than the first film. That one had the majority of the characters poking fun at Po. Here, Po has demons and personal issues haunting him so his friends help him out more than make fun of him. Tigress (voice of Angelina Jolie) in particular has an expanded role here in comparison to the first film and provides guidance and there’s a hint of romantic chemistry with Po.
Every other character in the story is just there to back Po up in the multitude of battles he faces with Shen. But there exists a darker undertone to this story than the lighter, more fast-paced first film. Younger kids may not be the most appropriate audience for this film if looking at only the stories surrounding Po’s true panda origins. The backstory of how Po ended up with a goose for a dad is touching and just a little sad, hitting right at abandonment and loneliness issues that don’t often crop up in animated films. Shen has comparatively less menace in the present timeframe. Thankfully, they don’t go too dark or the film might have been unbearable.
The film takes an interesting trek through its overall plotline. Po and his friends battle their way, hilariously video game-style, through a Chinese cityscape to get to a giant tower where Shen rules with his kung fu weapon. The majority of the film’s laughs come from this sequence, where Po takes to a long Chinese paper dragon disguise that eats the wolves they encounter along the way. Cherish this sequence because the film is short on big laughs otherwise. When Shen and Po do battle in the tower (which brought to mind “The Game of Death” for me in some instances), I thought the movie might end there.
There’s a secondary action sequence where Po has to rescue the Furious Five and prevent Shen from releasing his weapon on all of China. That followed a sequence where Po does learn about his true origins while healing from the first battle. It’s deeper than many animated films usually go with their characters and storylines, demonstrating a maturity with the material that might bore some kids but impress adults. It helps that the animation and visuals are top-notch. Director Jennifer Yuh uses an interesting visual technique, putting the majority of flashbacks in a 2-D format and using modern CGI for the present action. It’s a very colorful film (I saw it in non-3D format) and those who might get bored with the darker storyline can still look with awe at the visuals.
Film sequels are a dicey area for Hollywood these days. It’s too easy to get trapped in not only reintroducing familiar characters, but rehashing familiar storylines as well. “Kung Fu Panda 2″ doesn’t do that. There’s more familiarity with the characters, but the filmmakers made the smart choice to add depth to Po as the primary hero of the story. It also expands the world a little, and even if the action is somewhat predictable, it’s still entertaining. There is even a nice little cliffhanger promising more future stories at the very end, which I did not expect. It may not have the amount of laughs and joy from the first film, but the entertainment value is at least even with it. Those who enjoyed the first film will, like myself, really like the second one.