(by Dustin Putman
It is far too rare that a female director gets the chance to solo-helm a big-budget animated feature, and even more rare for it to be an Asian female director. This little tidbit may or may not have any actual bearing on the quality of "Kung Fu Panda 2," but kudos to the Dreamworks Animation unit for thinking outside the box and hiring the person they felt was most fit to take the lead on the project. Written once more by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (2009's "Monsters vs. Aliens"), this inevitable sequel to 2008's hugely successful "Kung Fu Panda" is decidedly more of the same, lacking the overall freshness of the original but making up for it with an expanding exploration of lovable panda hero Po (voiced by Jack Black) and a past that, it turns out, is far more dark and sordid than he could have possibly imagined. The narrative otherwise sticks to the conventional even when it has the chance—as in the climactic face-off between protagonist and villain—to diverge from the norm. For what it is, though, it's done well. Article continues below
Unlikely Dragon Warrior Po is living his dream alongside Furious Five compatriots Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) when word comes that a devious albino peacock named Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), still bitter over being shunned from his family years before, has set out to destroy China and overthrow kung-fu with a special weapon he's created from the gunpowder used in the country's still-novel fireworks displays. Haunted by memories from his own infancy that connect him to Lord Shen, Po finally learns once and for all that his loving, noodles-obsessed goose father Mr. Ping (James Hong) isn't his biological dad. The news doesn't exactly surprise Po, but the grim fates of his real parents is all the fuel he needs in setting out to stop Lord Shen's diabolical plans of mass destruction.
With "Kung Fu Panda" and now "Kung Fu Panda 2," recognizable name actors have been cast to fill out the voices of nearly every single character, most whom don't get more than a few lines (if that). Is anyone seriously coming to see these movies because Jackie Chan (2010's "The Karate Kid") is heard muttering a single sentence of dialogue? Wouldn't it cost the production a lot less money to hire an unknown rather than waste their budget and squander the talents of someone who deserves at least a little better? If the so-called "Furious Five" who help Po on his quest are still an undernourished clan given nothing to do—only returnee Angelina Jolie (2010's "The Tourist") has seen her role enlarged—the heart of the story remains steadfastly with Po's journey as he becomes a great warrior and learns a little something about himself in the process. His warm relationship with his goose father Mr. Ping remains the standout—James Hong (2008's "The Day the Earth Stood Still") is touching and hugely funny in the quirkily entertaining part—and deserves to be one of the centerpieces if a third film is made.
As the tough but cuddly Po, Jack Black (2010's "Gulliver's Travels") is the clear star of the show and makes for an adorable, increasingly layered lead worth rooting for. Once just a helpless panda hidden in a radish basket and found by Mr. Ping, Po has grown into an empathetic figure who cares about and tries to identify with others, usually thinking before butt-kicking. Because of this, it is unfortunate that his complicated interplay with bad peacock Lord Shen has to culminate in a fight-to-the-death finish. When Shen finally comes face to face with Po and asks him how he has been able to shed his scars of the past and find inner peace, the viewer sits up and takes notice. Might Shen be willing to change, having seen the error of his ways? Alas, it is not to be, as Lord Shen immediately after pulls out some knives to attack once more. It's a typical and kind of lazy finish to a storyline that had a chance to teach a more valuable lesson to young children and go in a more thoughtful direction.
In 2-D theaters and once on Blu-Ray, "Kung Fu Panda 2" will be a feast to just gaze upon, its exotic Chinese backdrops and the diverse palate of characters beautifully captured. In 3-D, the same cannot be said about an image that is altogether dimmer, dingier and unattractively faded. Lacking those deeper pangs of emotion and nostalgia that Pixar at its best captures, the movie is airy but entertaining, certain to please its target audience for ninety minutes. A scene where Po yells out a defiant battle cry, but is so far away from Lord Shen and the Furious Five that no one can quite hear what he's saying, is an especially amusing moment. Having learned to always keep the viewer wanting more, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger even tack on a final revelation in the last second that will help to segue into a third installment. Po has yet to receive a film as memorable as himself, but "Kung Fu Panda 2" will suffice until his next chance for greatness comes along.Special Note:
I would be remiss not to mention the use of 3-D for the theatrical release of "Kung Fu Panda 2." Po Hates 3-DThis is a format I have complained about over and over, so I won't repeat myself with the obvious criticism that it is a total disservice to animated filmmakers who must watch the vibrancy of their colors and details of their creations drained from unnecessary 3-D presentations. If I had my choice, I would always pick the 2-D version to see. Alas, the studios only provide 3-D editions of their releases for the press to screen in advance. There are no two ways about it; it is an utter detriment to have to review a movie this way, and when the theatrical venue has a dim projector bulb, as it did for the screening of "Kung Fu Panda 2," the disappointing experience is even more a hindrance. The most positive, immersive, visually splendid time I've had at an animated film in 2011 was the lovely "Rango," in 2-D. Such a statement speaks for itself.