One of the genuine delights of the original "Kung-Fu Panda" was realizing that the film was a perfect gateway drug into real kung-fu films for kids, an authentically built story of a misfit named Po (Jack Black) who wanted to become a master like the Furious Five, the kung-fu heroes he worshipped. The film featured a pretty menacing bad guy in the form of Tai Lung (Ian McShane), and when it offered up either philosophy or action scenes, there was a credibility to it that I found impressive.
With this new entry in what I can only imagine is a series, director Jennifer Yuh has crafted a truly ravishing visual experience, and the script by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger is solid and streamlined. My one complaint about the film is just how painless the entire thing seems, how very linear the storyline is. There's a problem, the good guys go to deal with it, and then they do. It's not much more complicated than that, a particularly stripped-down version of Campbell's basic story form.
Having said that, the film is energetic, filled with clever and exciting kung-fu action, and there is an emotional arc for Po that I found personally very affecting, more so than I would have expected. Overall, I would call "Kung-Fu Panda" pretty rousing family entertainment, and if your little ones are eager to see the film this weekend, it's a safe bet that they'll be just as pleased as you are with your time in the theater.
It's been a little while since the end of the first film, and the Furious Five have comfortably folded Po, the newly-annointed Dragon Warrior, into their extended family. Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), and Viper (Lucy Liu) operate as a perfectly-synchronized team when there is trouble, and I like that they don't regress to make Po a bumbling idiot in this movie. He handles himself quite well in the film's action scenes. He is imperfect, but he has already proven himself to be capable, and the film builds on that. At the start of the film, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells Po that he needs to learn to tap into inner peace as a form of power, and that becomes very important to Po when something challenges all of his notions of identity after a disastrous raid on a local village by a pack of wolves.
During the raid, Po sees a symbol that knocks him off his concentration, a symbol that makes him think of blood and horror and something awful, something blocked from his own past. He has no choice but to try and unravel the mystery of that symbol and its effect on him, leading him to a hard conversation with Mr. Ping (James Hong), the goose who Po calls "father." In the first film, I liked that it was just this unacknowledged bit of weirdness that there was a goose who had a panda for a son, and now, as Po works to unravel the truth about his own origins, that weird joke becomes something totally different. I'm adopted, and my parents have always been very honest with me about it, but for each adopted child, the process of dealing with that idea is very different, very personal. Both Black and Hong play this material just right, and it is an essential part of Po's journey to inner peace, as opposed to a sub-plot that's just jammed in.
The bad guy this time is actually far more menacing than Tai Lung was in the first film, and it was inspired to hire Gary Oldman to play Lord Shen, a peacock who was in line for ascendency to the throne. His curiosity about fireworks leads him to develop weapons, and his plan for using those weapons leads his family to disown him. More importantly, there is a prophecy that a Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) offers up that says Shen will eventually be destroyed by a white and black warrior, which leads Shen to organize a panda genocide. Yes, that's right… Po's backstory involves the total eradication of his kind from China, and while I wouldn't call it graphic, "Kung-Fu Panda 2" pulls no punches. It has to be blunt about things in order to create the emotional payoff it aims for, and as a result, it seems harder-edged than most films for young viewers. Again, it plays like a real kung-fu film. Shen's actions, motivated by fear of the prophecy, end up creating the atmosphere that could eventually lead to his downfall. It's well-handled, and Shen is a very creepy character. When he shows back up, ready to claim his birthright, his use of giant guns against the kung-fu of the royal guards is horrifying. It sets him up as unbeatable, even against the combined forces of Po and the Furious Five.
One thing I really like about these films is how beautiful the world is around the characters. The Shaw Brothers would look at these films and just drool. I've always held up "Come Drink With Me" as one of the most visually striking of the old-school kung-fu films, and this movie looks like the dream someone would have after falling asleep the night they watched "Come Drink With Me." There are some fun new characters, including Yeoh's Soothsayer and Master Croc, played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, but the focus remains firmly on Po and his dual efforts to figure out his own identity while stopping Shen. It's a lean and efficient sequel, wasting little time. Shifu gets short-changed this time, and that's a shame because his relationship with Po is what gave the first film some weight. There's a beat at the very end of the film that sets up a sequel in such open-ended fashion that it almost qualifies as a cliffhanger, and while I liked the beat, I'm concerned that it undermines some of the strong positive messages in the adoption subplot.
Still, as animated sequels go, "Kung-Fu Panda 2" honors the original and treats its audiences, young and old alike, with some fairly basic respect. Couldn't really ask for more.
"Kung Fu Panda 2: The Kaboom Of Doom" opens everywhere tomorrow.