Animated sequels have yet to disprove that timeless adage about movie sequels, but they’re giving it a real go. DreamWorks Animation hasn’t always gotten the formula right (the “Shrek” movies got worse and worse), but even “Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa” had entertainment to offer. “Kung Fu Panda 2” marks the studio’s third try at extending a franchise, and from a production quality standpoint its their best effort to do so.
No, “Kung Fu Panda 2” doesn’t outdo the original, especially not in terms of humor, but it improves on the visual mastery of the first, which was strong to begin with. The action sequences in particular still have no rival to this series. Director Jennifer Yuh stays true to the winning combination of action, character development and heart that made the 2008 original a success.
The story works well, but its predictability holds the film back. The original offered a lot of surprises in telling the story of a fat and lazy panda who learned he could be great if he put his mind to it. In this movie, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tasks Po (Jack Black) with another seemingly impossible mission, one in which the film’s narrated introduction sequence already foreshadows his success. Sure, kids won’t know the difference, but it zaps the film of any excitement for the rest of us.
The story takes Po, the now infamous Dragon Warrior, to Gongman City, where the three kung fu masters that protect the city have been ousted by the villainous peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). Shen was exiled by his parents — who once ruled China — because he had a fondness for turning fireworks into dangerous projectiles. Years later, he uses these cannons to uphold his new reign, because not even kung fu can stop them. We’ll see about that.
The strong voice cast returns for the sequel and delivers. Black has simply become Po at this point he does it so well, and characters such as Tigress (Angelina Jolie) and Po’s father Mr. Ping (James Hong) get more of a spotlight, albeit at the expense of everyone else. Oldman makes a terrific addition as the cocky peacock; he demonstrates some lovely dashes of insanity and Shen’s facial expressions match it perfectly.
On all accounts, the production value of this series has gone up in this installment. The film moves at a good clip and the action sequences have no shortage of wowing moments. Shen’s fighting style is something to behold and the storyboarding of the film’s first sequence when the Furious Five defend their home from Shen’s wolves does not lack for ingenuity to say the least.
Also at work in the film is a subplot involving where Po came from, as one must imagine he is not literally the son of a noodle-cooking goose. The answer to this mystery becomes clear from the moment the question surfaces.
All the other aspects of the movie satisfy, but Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger’s story possesses no creative energy. The choice to go with it was safe. Rather than venture too outside the box, “Kung Fu Panda 2” takes the cookie-cutter route. It looks good and it is good, but it doesn’t meet the standard raised by its predecessor. Fortunately its dedication to character and heart make it stand taller than your average CGI-animated effort.
Kung Fu Panda 2
Directed by Jennifer Yuh
Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger
Starring: (voics) Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman, Dustin Hoffman