Huggable Po gets all touchy-feely in Kung Fu Panda 2, a sturdy sequel to the 2009 blockbuster. This entry aims to expand the series visually and in storytelling terms. It introduces emotionally complex issues and literally adds new scope via 3-D. In each case, the payoff is impressive.
The movie opens with a ravishing replica of traditional Chinese shadow puppet plays. The prologue introduces the movie’s villain, a militarist peacock named Lord Shen, who aims to conquer China by exterminating kung fu. Po, a giant panda who transformed himself from a dumpling-shaped layabout to a mighty martial arts master, leads his Furious Five posse against Lord Shen’s “unstoppable” new weapon. But pride may be his undoing unless he can find spiritual harmony, as his mentor Master Shifu instructs.
Haunted by memories of infancy and always a bit at odds with his fussbudget dad — how can a goose sire a panda? — Po lacks inner peace. He will have to subdue his own demons before he can vanquish his foe.
The vocal cast is fine, with Jack Black alternately laconic and lunatic as Po and Gary Oldman all silken menace as Lord Shen, whose claws and tail feathers double as rapiers. Angelina Jolie’s strong, protective Master Tigress moves to the forefront of Po’s team as Po’s surrogate Tiger Mother, embodying the strict Chinese parenting that the immature hero still needs. Her colleagues Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross and Lucy Liu get about two lines apiece. But that’s fine because then Michelle Yeoh gets more time as a soothsaying mountain goat who nervously nibbles at her clients’ robes when not dispensing wisdom, and so does James Hong as Mr. Ping, Po’s proud papa.
The film’s strong suit, its richly textured visuals, will leave you breathless. The screen is almost radioactive with beauty. The backgrounds are photorealistic landscapes of National Geographic magnificence, the interiors are fever dreams of Ming Dynasty splendor, and the character animation, with complex but extremely smooth kung fu choreography, simply flows. Fireworks are a key element of the story, and the sheer surfeit of visual delights — more than the eye can absorb in any one moment — mirrors the climax of a fireworks display.
Magical as the slick 3-D scenes are, the antique shadow plays that open the movie are even cooler. And the decision to add snatches of serious soul-searching to the original recipe of belly laughs and surging action yields a fine dividend. The film will give most spectators their weekly dose of escapism while fleshing out a character that could have remained formulaic.
This second chapter in what is said to be a planned sextet bears all the marks of a carefully nurtured cash crop. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) did a script polish, no doubt adding the notes of anxiety and self-doubt that peck at Po. That master of fairy tale menace Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) is credited as a creative consultant and the gag writers are ever-inventive.
There’s an intimidating number of moving parts in a project such as this, and director Jennifer Yuh keeps it all running smoothly. The effort must have been considerable. The result is worth all the work.
Voices: Jack Black, Gary Oldman, Angelina Jolie, Michelle Yeoh.
Director: Jennifer Yuh.
Screenwriters: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger.
Producer: Melissa Cobb.
A Dreamworks Animation release. Running time: 90 minutes. Martial arts action, mild violence. Opens Friday May 26 at: area theaters.