In Kung Fu Panda 2 the hero, a roly-poly panda named Po, voiced by the irrepressible Jack Black, undergoes an identity crisis. Raised by a doting, dithering, noodle-shop-owning goose, Po experiences flashbacks to a traumatic infancy, including hazy recollections of his parents that look sketched by hand, in contrast to the computer-polished, 3D images that dominate the movie.
As Po tries to work out his issues, Kung Fu Panda 2, directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson from a screenplay by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, succumbs to its own crippling confusion. The first Kung Fu Panda, released in 2008, was a rambunctious, whimsical blend of action, jokiness and sentiment, lifted above the kiddie-cartoon mean by its shiny, playful look and Black’s endlessly adaptable charm. The movie was also a big enough hit to make it unthinkable that DreamWorks Animation, which ran poor Shrek into the ground, would let it stand alone. So the studio worked up this sequel, which accomplishes the depressingly familiar mathematical trick of being both more and less than its predecessor.
The upside of the “more” is that there is, once again, quite a lot of nice stuff to look at, an expanded palette of clever and sometimes beautiful visual effects. Like the first Panda picture — and like the intermittently sublime How to Train Your Dragon — Kung Fu Panda 2 uses 3D technology with flair and restraint, adding pop to the action sequences and depth to the landscapes, which evoke an ancient China spun out of candy.
The palaces and villages, the mountains and bamboo forests, to say nothing of the beasts that populate this confectionary realm, are evidence of an affectionate, irreverent interest in Chinese artistic traditions. (Hans Zimmer’s score is a witty pastiche that includes some choice 1970s-style chopsocky riffs as well as more stately pseudoclassical swatches.) The movie is an obvious parody of sword and martial-arts wuxia (武俠) movies, but it also serves as an invitation to young audiences, who may find that Po’s antics have sparked an appetite for the more grown-up pleasures of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍) or Curse of the Golden Flower (滿城盡帶黃金甲).
Directed by: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
With the Voices of: Jack Black (Po), Angelina Jolie (Tigress), Dustin Hoffman (Shifu), Jackie Chan (Monkey), Seth Rogen (Mantis), Lucy Liu (Viper), David Cross (Crane), James Hong (Mr Ping), Gary Oldman (Lord Shen), Michelle Yeoh (Soothsayer), Jean-claude Van Damme (Master Croc), Victor Garber (Master Thundering Rhino), Dennis Haysbert (Master Storming Ox)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
Vengeance and bloodshed figure prominently in many of those movies, and also, somewhat disconcertingly, in Kung Fu Panda 2. The villain, a peacock named Shen (with the reliably sinister voice of Gary Oldman), has not only usurped the imperial throne, aided by some nasty, armor-plated wolves; he has also conducted a campaign of genocide against pandas, an atrocity that figures in Po’s half-repressed memories. Apparently Po is the only surviving member of his species, which makes him both the target of Shen’s violence and an agent of righteous vengeance. I say “apparently” because an unexplained bit of revisionism at the end of the movie reveals that Shen’s panda slaughter was not as extensive as previously believed.
Have I spoiled anything? If you are 7, maybe. If not, I have spared you some uncomfortable explaining and allowed you to reassure panicky children in your company that everything will be OK. Everything always is in this kind of movie, but this one plays with some unusually dark and upsetting material.
Its escalation of evil messes up the high-spirited sweetness that was the most winning feature of the first movie. Po’s clumsy, goofy eagerness no longer seems quite as amusing now that he is a psychologically damaged warrior. And his action-team entourage, drawn from various species of animal and movie star — praying mantis, tiger, monkey, etc; Seth Rogen, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan (成龍), etc — do more to crowd the picture than to enliven it. On the other hand, an elderly soothsayer voiced by Michelle Yeoh (楊紫瓊) steals every scene she’s in.