It takes somewhat longer for the awesomeness to turn all that awesome. And you can’t really replicate that element of surprise that the first movie had going for it: a fan boy panda that gets to team up with his martial arts heroes.
But Kung Fu Panda 2 delivers more heart than laughs, and is, if anything, more visually dazzling than the 2008 original film.
Cuddly, plush Po (voiced by Jack Black) is now a reasonably accomplished and competent Dragon Warrior, a sixth member of the Furious Five, meting out justice with his mad kung fu skillz. But there is a new threat, a preening peacock (literally) that covets all of China and has a new magic weapon, “one that breathes fire and spits metal,” a weapon whose arrival on the scene “could be the end of kung fu.”
“But I just got kung fu!” Po protests.
Po and his Furious friends have a quest: stop Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman); destroy his weapon. But first, Po’s mentor (Dustin Hoffman) has a new life lesson for him: find inner peace.
“My innards are already super-peaceful,” Po complains. Black has fewer lines with the gonzo-gusto of the first film, just the odd, “My fist hungers for justice!” But the soul of Panda 2 is Po’s real quest, the one that gives him flashbacks every time he sees Lord Shen’s peacock feather emblem on the wolves that are the villain’s minions: “Where did I come from?” A dumpling-loving panda raised by a wok-wielding goose has got to figure out he’s adopted, sooner or later.
Artist-turned-director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who was head of story on the first Kung Fu Panda, sees to it that this sequel is both more striking—cut-out shadow puppets for the opening credits, two-dimensional flashbacks to Po’s childhood—and more Confucian. When the evil megalomaniac Lord Shen asks his soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh, as a goat) his fortune, her answer applies to greed heads of any age: “The cup you choose to fill has no bottom.”
There are wonderful grace notes in this script, as befits a movie with a Buddhist bent: “Your story may not have a happy beginning. But look at how it turned out.”
The chases are 3-D animated wonders, the martial arts brawls are epic, or “severely cool” as Po would put it. But the stunt voice casting doesn’t pay off. Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Seth Rogen and others don’t have enough lines to make an impact. And it takes a solid, stolid half-hour to finally get to that first string of laughs, that first blast of flip, funny “awesomeness.”
Still, Panda 2 has more genuinely heart-tugging moments than any Shrek sequel. Which is probably why we’re sure to see more tales of Master Po mastering martial arts, finding inner peace and learning to wok his way.