By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Get ready for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Panda The Second.
The deserving 2008 blockbuster Kung Fu Panda was a real kung fu movie that just happened to be animated. A splendidly designed and executed ‘toon about martial-arts mavens called the Furious Five, it was fast, fierce, and funny, and didn’t “panda” to the kids.
The sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2, may not quite ascend to the same heights of humor, charm, action, and drama as the original, which set the bar impressively high. But it still proves to be an entertaining and worthwhile second helping.
Jack Black returns as the voice of Po, the kung fu master who has become the new Dragon Warrior, living out his dream by swearing to protect the Valley of Peace and fighting alongside his former martial-arts idols.
Once again he is mentored by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and joined by the Furious Five — tigress Angelina Jolie, mantis Seth Rogen, monkey Jackie Chan, crane David Cross, and viper Lucy Liu.
Gary Oldman gives voice to Lord Shen, a power-hungry and revenge-obsessed albino peacock who holds the key to Po’s origins and who has invented a weapon of mass destruction with which he hopes to render the ancient art of kung fu obsolescent and take over China.
And as if that’s not enough of a stressful burden for Po, buried memories of how he became the adopted son of the noodle shop-owning goose, Mr. Ping (James Hong) surface and send him searching for inner peace by digging into the truth of how life actually began for him.
Debuting director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who was in charge of the story and action sequences on the first installment, works from another effective script by returning screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who once again blend action and humor, but this time stir in an additional dash of poignance with Po’s touching journey of self-discovery. Nelson seems refreshingly willing to include themes that push at the boundaries of the family movie.
Despite the emotional tug provided by the where-do-I-come-from plot thrust, though, the lighthearted, child-friendly tone is nonetheless maintained.
And the use of different styles of animation in the flashback memory sequences proves both visually stimulating and narratively clear.
Like its predecessor, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a spirited and thoughtful mixture of action, humor, and pathos. Sure, the sequel drops a peg on the originality scale, but it’s an admirable followup that comes gratifyingly close to the accomplishments of the first installment.
Black contributes more marvelous voice work, once again lending his comic persona to the character, and Oldman is a welcome addition and a worthy villain.
The characters voiced by Hong and Jolie register vividly, but the rest of the returning character voices are barely there, as is also true for several new ones (voiced by Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber, and Michelle Yeoh).
With a few of the characters getting lost in the shuffle, it seems as if the film would have benefited from the principal cast recording their dialogue in the same room at the same time — rather than in isolated sessions — so that the performers could have turned prose dialogue into poetry. But at least the characters in the spotlight, Po and Shen, and the voice actors bringing them to life are more than capable of doing the heavy lifting.
So we’ll grin and bear 3 stars out of 4 for the fine, furry followup Kung Fu Panda 2, another splendid skirmish between the martial arts and the art of animation.