by HELEN GEIB
Kung Fu Panda 2 is the very satisfying sequel to 2008’s wholly delightful Kung Fu Panda. The new adventure builds on the foundation laid by the first film, which established the Chinese historical fantasy setting and introduced the heroes. Kung Fu Panda told the “how he got his kung fu” origin story of Po the kung fu panda a/k/a the Dragon Warrior. Kung Fu Panda 2 is the story of Po’s origins. That our hero is the adopted son of a goose, but doesn’t quite seem to realize he’s adopted, was one of the first film’s many good jokes. The sequel explains how a baby panda came to be adopted by the feathered proprietor of a noodle shop.
The writing team behind the series are clearly of the mind that there’s no reason to try and reinvent the story wheel when it comes to films made primarily for children, who haven’t seen it all before. While the Chinese martial arts and fantasy backdrop gives an air of novelty to the proceedings, both films are classic(al) stories of coming of age, friendship, and the thwarting of evildoers.
This time around, Po and his now fast friends the Furious Five must defeat the cruel warlord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman), the peacock ruler of the walled city that is the birthplace of fireworks- and thus of gunpowder. Po is Shen’s fated nemesis, as foretold by an old goat soothsayer (amusingly, voiced by Michelle Yeoh), and their pasts are tragically intertwined. There will be kung fu action aplenty, a huge dose of comedy, and a dash of adoption angst before this is over.
The worst criticism to be made of Kung Fu Panda 2 is that it is not as adroitly plotted as the first film. Po and Shen’s escalating confrontations turn repetitive; the Five, aside from Tigress, are rather marginalized; and Shifu’s third act entrance is awkwardly written, although it’s good to see him nonetheless. That the film is sometimes too quick with a joke can be forgiven since it’s plainly a deliberate strategy to lighten the heavy moments for the sake of the younger children in the audience.
The voice acting is as stellar as ever. Jack Black remains the only possible Po. As Tigress, Angelina Jolie’s voice acting noticeably betters her work in the first film. Dustin Hoffman as Shifu and James Hong as Po’s dad are again excellent; Hong especially shines in an expanded supporting role. Of the new cast members, Oldman is just as good as one would expect of the sophisticated, hubristic, and bad to the bone villain, and Yeoh’s voice work is also very good as the wise, dignified, and eats anything (she’s a goat after all) soothsayer. Danny McBride, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Victor Garber, and Dennis Haysbert are fun in smaller parts.
Memorable and beautiful backgrounds again fill the screen. Starting things off with a prologue sequence in a different animation style than the body of the film is now officially a pattern. Kung Fu Panda 2‘s marvelous prologue is inspired by the silhouette animation of pioneering animator Lotte Reiniger (The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)). The detailed expressiveness of the animal characters’ faces and movements sets a new bar for the series; Tigress’ fleeting smiles are a wonderful example of the remarkably subtle changes of expression. The sequel’s kung fu fighting surpasses the original’s with more elaborate fight choreography and more complex poses and movements.
3 1/2 stars
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Also released in 2008, The Forbidden Kingdom is a live action Hollywood martial arts fantasy closely inspired by Hong Kong wuxia films.