Jennifer Yuh’s Kung Fu Panda 2 comes close to being that rare beast—the sequel that’s better than the original. Visually, it’s better than its predecessor. In fact, it’s one of the most elegantly beautiful animated films I’ve ever seen. It’s also much better at achieving—albeit simplistically—the kind of emotional resonance the first film tried for and missed. At the same time, unfortunately, someone forgot that much of what worked about Kung Fu Panda (2008) was the interplay between Jack Black’s Po and Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu. Oh, it’s still here, but the new film makes the mistake of sidelining Hoffman for way too much of the film. Instead, it gives Angelina Jolie’s Tigress more to do—and that’s not a good trade-off.
The story this round involves the villainous peacock, Shen (Gary Oldman, who makes a much better villainous peacock here than he did a villainous witchfinder in Red Riding Hood). The cocky son of a royal family, Shen is told by a soothsayer sheep (Michelle Yeoh) that he will be defeated by a black-and-white adversary, so rather than risk such a thing, he goes all Biblical on the pandas and thinks he’s stamped them out. His parents are so horrified by this act that they disown him and banish him, which, of course, only makes him nastier. In fact, it drives him to transform the family invention of fireworks into the creation of gunpowder and cannons—with which he plans to take over all of China. Naturally, it’s up to Po and the “Furious Five” to stop him.
I can’t say that anything terribly surprising happens—apart from the fact that the film never succumbs to post-modern pop culture snark, which is always a pleasant surprise. Like its predecessor, a good many of the celebrity voice-cast performers aren’t given much to do, while voice guest stars Dennis Haysbert and Jean-Claude Van Damme may as well not have shown up at all. (In the latter case, this could have been a blessing in disguise.) But what the film does do is offer some genuine—and genuinely breathtaking—spectacle. So many movies strive for “epic,” and so few really achieve it. This does. Better yet, it does it in 3D, which is, for a change, an actual enhancement and not just a way to wrangle an extra three-and-a-half bucks out of your pocket.
Kung Fu Panda 2 also manages to tell a credibly moving story concerning Po’s origins. I admit I actually liked the fact that the first film started to explain just why a panda has a goose (James Hong) for a father, and then never did. And I slightly regret that this one does, but I can’t deny that the film’s “daddy issues” are both nicely, if predictably, addressed and are worked in as a plot device. For that matter, I don’t even object too strenuously to the fact that this is used to set up the inevitable sequel. All in all, the quality of this film—and Rango—only serve to make me dread the prospect of Cars 2 that much more. Rated PG for sequences of martial arts action and mild violence.