As an animation studio, DreamWorks hasn’t exactly established a reputation for high quality product. Oh, they churn out hits, by gum, but precious few come within spitting distance of Pixar’s oft-miraculous output. Occasionally they manage to work wonders – How to Train Your Dragon being the most recent glowing example – but more often than not they fall back on their time-tested, nutrient-free, wash, rinse and repeat formula of simplistic storytelling, A-list celebrity voice-casting and half-assed pop-culture references. The results are usually harmless, fluffy and entirely forgettable. Over the Hedge, anyone?
2008’s Kung Fu Panda should have fallen into that category. Conceptually, it came across like a hellish cinematic launch pad for a merchandizing bonanza. What kid wouldn’t want a cute stuffed animal that could do martial arts? Especially one voiced by wacky Jack Black and featured in TV spots scored to Tom Jones’ long-past-played-out ditty “Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting?”
Yet, the film was surprisingly endearing; a charming and respectful candy-coloured love letter to classic Hong Kong cinema that actually contained a number of genuinely dynamic action sequences. It also had true heart, along with a solid laugh ratio, and played as strongly to kids as it did adults. Kung Fu Panda became a big box-office smash for the studio and, despite losing the Best Animated Oscar to Pixar’s Wall-E, nonetheless managed to earn a spot on several year-end Best Of lists. Thus, a sequel was inevitable.
Now, just three short years later, we have Kung Fu Panda 2, which shares its predecessor’s cheerfully kinetic visual sense and reverence for all things chop socky, but lacks its narrative oomph. Our hero, Po (Black), is still a lovable goofball with an unconquerable appetite, albeit one who has mastered martial arts and earned his rightful place fighting alongside the Furious Five – which includes legendary warriors Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) and Mantis (Seth Rogen). All is well and good until villainous peacock Shen (Gary Oldman) happens onto the scene. Disgraced after being exiled from his homeland many years ago for a vicious campaign of panda-cide, Shen intends to conquer all of China by unleashing his new catastrophic weapons which utilize... gunpowder!
As if a canon-wielding, metal-taloned peacock with terrible dreams of domination and an army of ravenous wolves wasn’t enough to contend with, Po must also grapple with the newfound discovery that his adoring goose dad Mr. Ping (James Hong) may not actually be his biological father(!). Unfortunate for our hero, the only individual capable of divulging his mysterious parentage is Shen, who is none-too-forthcoming with answers. In order to triumph, Po must overcome his emotional baggage and achieve inner-peace – an elusive state of being that only true kung fu masters are capable of attaining.
Directed by series newcomer Jennifer Yuh, and written by returning scribes Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, Kung Fu Panda 2 wastes no time in catching viewers up to speed. Shen’s threat is established immediately – courtesy of a beautifully animated prologue which depicts his violent backstory with traditional Chinese paper dolls – and Po and the Furious Five are off and running shortly after being reintroduced. However, unlike the first film, which had a sturdy narrative structure, this second entry feels repetitious and slightly aimless. We can only watch our heroes track down the villain and engage in hand-to-hand combat so many times before we start to check our watches. Further, the connection between Po and Shen doesn’t feel as powerful and spot-on as it should. Sure, it leads to a gorgeous anime revelation in the spirit of classic heartstring-tugging Disney, but even that moment feels more like plot housekeeping than an organic story development.
While the script often lets the picture down, there are still plenty of dazzling visuals to maintain a hold on the viewer’s attention. There’s an imaginatively chaotic rickshaw chase through the streets and a valiant ascent up a rapidly collapsing tower that are both brilliantly choreographed and staged, and a climactic battle involving a fleet of glowing, red lantern-lit ships that’s a feast for the eyes. Although the background extras often look like cut-and-paste copies of one another (a common DreamWorks deficiency), the film’s fantastical representation of mythic ancient China is distinctive and well worth savouring on the big screen. That said, my favourite bravura bit comes early on, when Po and the Furious Five dive off a cliff into action and the camera follows them as they plummet down, down, down, until we almost feel our stomach rise up.
Once again, Jack Black is front and centre and more than comfortable riffing when called upon to do so. The actor, who can be tiresome when let loose in the live action realm, is well-suited to animation. His outsized persona is already near that of a cartoon’s. It’s long been a weakness of the franchise that he isn't given many strong personalities to bounce off. Despite an all-star supporting cast, most of the other actors seem to have recorded their brief dialogue snippets over a short lunch break. Jolie’s Tigress has a little more to do this time, but most of her on-screen duties require her to act as the painfully sober voice of reason. Hoffman’s presence is lessened considerably this time around – down to really only one juicy early scene – while Rogen’s role consists of telling a pretty lame joke. Twice. As before, Chan, Cross and Liu are pretty much wasted, as is Jean-Claude Van Damme, playing imprisoned palace guard Master Croc. Only Oldman’s silky menace and James Hong’s hyperventilating daffy dad (the series’ greatest secret weapon, as far as I’m concerned) manage to leave a lasting impression.
When all is said and done, and the last baddie has been skadooshed, Kung Fu Panda 2 is an amiable enough family film that will doubtlessly enthral those in the single digits. The picture is vibrant and peppy, and perfectly content to tell a safe, inoffensive story that doesn’t travel down any daring new roads. It’s a decent enough first sequel, but if the adventure is to continue – and the cliffhanger ending implies it soon will – DreamWorks needs to seriously consider boosting this Panda’s mojo.
3 out of 5