REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda 2 [2011]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG | Runtime: 91 minutes | Release Date: May 26th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: DreamWorks Animation / Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Jennifer Yuh
Writer(s): Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger

“Tell those musicians to play some action music because it is on”

The phrase sophomore slump wasn’t just coined out of the blue; it is a very real description for a good number of sequels overall, but especially the realm of cinema. Very few follow-ups to praised work ever earn a place to be mentioned beside their predecessors let alone become deemed a step above. And the attempt gets even harder when you’re dealing with animated children’s fare—the Toy Story films a grand exception—since most end up languishing in direct to home video shoddiness and poor market strategy. So, when a big budget blockbuster like Kung Fu Panda decides to continue its story, you hope the creators keep to what made the original good, building on what worked to take audiences to new heights of intrigue. Unfortunately, Kung Fu Panda 2 falls prey to the misguided thought of wanting to pull at heart strings first and crafting the story to do so last. While the filmmakers realized the fight choreography was huge—making the set pieces here even better—they forgot how important character development was in enhancing the rest.

I missed the exposition. I missed being introduced to each of these characters, watching how an unlikely obese panda (Jack Black’s Po) gets chosen to be the ultimate fighter—the Dragon Warrior—when five better trained and more worthy of the title kung fu experts are left to become sidekicks needed to save him at every turn. The ugly duckling tale is the first film’s success, the comedy and action merely tools to entertain while a poignant story with worthwhile messages to youngsters is spun. With the sequel, all of that is lost. The characters just are—we know them and therefore aren’t given anything to really grab hold of and invest in. The group is pretty much where we left them, goofing around and training while Mr. Ping (James Hong) uses his son’s notoriety to sell more soup. The menagerie of warriors risks their lives to save the townsfolk because it is their occupation, no questions asked. Besides the rushed life lesson of ‘inner peace’ chatted about by Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) to Po before he must hurry off to save the day, nothing is set-up before our heroes journey to the big fight.

There is a gorgeously rendered, high-style, traditionally animated prologue setting the stage for our villain—an evil peacock—who not only risks destroying China with his cannons in a hostile takeover, but also may have been the cause Po has no panda brethren. We learn about Lord Shen’s banishment from the peacock order and his exile leading to an enlistment of wolves as minions and a thirty year struggle to hone his gunpowder for a return to glory. Here’s five minutes to introduce the villain, and then it’s pretty much off to good versus evil territory after Hong is allowed to bask in an extended sequence of hammy comedy in the overly sentimental, hardly shocking revelation that he isn’t Po’s real father. It’s a lazy bit of exposition tacked onto Shifu’s convenient lesson, both coupling to be the basis of the climatic events to come. It just isn’t enough, though; it’s just too flimsy of a structure. The joke of Po’s origins was played out in the original for cheap laughs, so it’s hard to now believe it as an emotionally wrought cornerstone to the evolution of character about to unfold. Thank heavens the action scenes do their best to make plot inconsequential.

Right from the start we are given the dark opening sequence alluding to genocide and soon after receive the treat of kung fu dance acrobatics against a pack of wolves seeking to steal Po’s town’s stock of metal for weaponry. The panda’s flair for unorthodox success in using his heft as a weapon and the other creatures’ carefully honed skills at destruction gives way to a kinetic romp of fisticuffs and kicks. Black is given ample opportunity to make quips as it goes along, again nicely subdued from his manic insanity for an effective turn, and the writers give their own comedic flourishes in how each battle is orchestrated—the best of which is an overhead series with Po, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan, with two lines), Crane (David Cross), and Viper (Lucy Liu) under a Chinese Dragon costume, pulling in foes to pummel while making it look to outsiders as though the dragon is eating, digesting, and excreting them out. Add in the fireworks-enhanced explosions of weaponry—a peacock specialty—and the fights bring much color, fun, and excitement, all culminating in a successfully orchestrated finale on the water as Po’s new lesson is serendipitously learned.

I have some qualms with minor plot contrivances like Michelle Yeoh’s Soothsayer, a holdover from Lord Shen’s parent’s days that predicted his demise, being left to live out of a hubristic notion he could prove her wrong, only to find her helping the enemy. Along with the heavy sense of schmaltzy love and family not being biological, I was turned off by the story itself when the characters were put in the background while attempting to further the plot. The characters are what make Kung Fu Panda what it is and I needed more Rogen quips about preying mantis tendencies or jaw-drops when Tigress shows a thawing of her normal stone façade. The attempt to bring a sense of history is admirable with the advent of guns being the end of the warrior, but perhaps this wasn’t necessarily the venue to do it. I’ll applaud Gary Oldman for his ever-winning ability to play the over-the-top villain and I’ll give kudos to Black for owning the role and carrying through, but this film is merely a shadow of its former glory overall. The blatant setup for a third does nothing to help the cause either, instead only making me wonder if parts Two and Three could have been combined for a more successful single entry.

[1] Po (Jack Black, center) and The Furious Five (left to right) Crane (David Cross), Tigress (Angelina Jolie) Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Viper (Lucy Liu) are back in DreamWorks Animation’s KUNG FU PANDA 2 to be released by Paramount on Thursday, May 26, 2011.
[2] Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) is a ruthless peacock who tries to defeat Po and the Furious Five and take over China in DreamWorks Animation’s KUNG FU PANDA 2 to be released by Paramount on Thursday, May 26, 2011.
[3] A scene from DreamWorks SKG’s Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

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