Kung Fu Panda Review: Go for the Panda, Stay for the Peacock
In terms of recent DreamWorks Animation output, the Kung Fu Panda franchise will never rise to the heights of How to Train Your Dragon, but it's a hell of a lot more tolerable than Shrek. And that's a good thing, since Kung Fu Panda is gearing up for a total of five installments based upon the success of the 2008 film, which brought in $631 million worldwide. To keep that fire burning, the filmmakers knew that Kung Fu Panda needed to communicate the same wisecracking charm of its predecessor, but they've also taken great care to expand the story and at least a few of the characters beyond that first dimension. Visually speaking, the second film is better than the first one thanks to a change in director; this time around, it's all up to Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who was responsible for helming the first movie's prologue, which featured stunningly hand-drawn, stylized 2-D animation that evoked the feel of a graphic novel. That particular sequence delved into Po's daydream psyche, and Nelson makes great use of the same technique in the follow-up as well, particularly when exploring Po's inner conflict. Overall, the tone of this sequel is much more consistent throughout, even if the film still suffers (and benefits) from the same premise as the first movie; that is, that a rather lazy, clumsy, and unschooled panda can be the Dragon Warrior through no achievement of his own, but that's also part of the joke too. Yes, it still bothers me somewhat, but my child seems to have no diminished work ethic of her own as a result of witnessing the "awesomeness" of slacker Po.
Also suspect in the first movie was the fact that Po's father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), is a goose, but that issue is readily addressed in this second installment. Whereas the first film focused on the importance of rising up to meet the challenge of one's destiny, this sequel delves into the origins of the roly-poly panda. Kung Fu Panda 2 (which was made under the working title of The Kaboom of Doom) picks up where the first one left off after Po has defeated the villainous snow-leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) and restored safety to the Valley of Peace. In the aftermath, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) continues his Yoda-like education of the underdog panda, who develops self confidence and learns to deal with his newfound fame. However, now that Po has finally begun to master kung fu, a new threat arrives, and he must save the martial art from certain destruction (not to mention irrelevance) because there's a new villain on the scene who has developed a cannon-like method of launching firecrackers to defeat his enemies without hand-to-hand combat. This latest baddie is a dastardly peacock named Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), who has experienced a vision that his death will come at the hands of a panda, so he sets about trying to kill all pandas in manner of King Herod. Again, we're dealing with a self-fulfilling prophecy that is reminiscent of the first movie's vision from Master Oogway that ultimately resulted in the very release of Tai Lung from prison that it foretold. Fortunately, all of the Furious Five members -- Tigress (Angelina Jolie) Monkey (Jackie Chan Mantis (Seth Rogen) Viper (Lucy Liu) Crane (David Cross) -- are back and help Po to both outfight and outwit Shen. (SPOILER ALERT) Naturally, things work out for Po and his allies, and their fights are conveniently won. After all, "Skadoosh!" still prominently figures into things, but it's a little more complicated than that in the interim.
Fortunately, the second movie isn't just a matter of defeating this new villain; it also has a lot to do with Po's inner battle and faltering confidence when he learns that he was abandoned as a baby panda. Upon this revelation (from a repressed memory knowingly triggered by the wily Shen), Po unavoidably reacts in the same way as many adopted children. He doubts his own identity and purpose and becomes consumed by the fact that his biological parents didn't want him at all. With help from Shifu, Po learns to overcome these doubts and find inner peace before gathering his strength to defeat Lord Shen. It probably sounds a bit like a Dr. Phil episode, but one appreciates a sequel's willingness to expand upon its characters instead of merely once again pushing them through the same motions as the first movie. In addition, the script flows smoothly through sharp wit and a bit of self-depreciation just to ensure that it's not taken all too seriously. After all, it's just a summer popcorn flick, but most adults will enjoy it along with their children too.
As far as voice work is concerned, Gary Oldman unavoidably rises above the rest of the cast, but Hoffman and Black (in what I still maintain is his only tolerable capacity) hold their own quite nicely. Jolie's Tigress is given an expanded role in the sequel, and she performs in a respectable manner, but her voice just isn't that distinctive, so the role could easily have been voiced by any other number of actresses at a fraction of the price. Among other minor players such as Danny McBride (as Wolf Boss), Victor Garber (as Master Rhino), and Dennis Haysbert (Master Ox), only Jean-Claude Van Damme (as Master Croc) adds enough vocal mischief to be worthwhile. Mostly, this is an Oldman/Black/Hoffman show, and the trio will please your aural sense while the movie itself entertains in a very visual manner. That is, you'll enjoy those visuals as long as you skip the 3-D premium, which merely adds a bit more dimension into the fighting sequences. If you stick with the 2-D and those crisp and vividly bold colors, and you'll like Kung Fu Panda 2 about as much as you liked the first movie.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.