It’s tricky to change the thrust—and the tone—of a story in its second installment, but I think the creators of Kung Fu Panda 2 have pulled it off. The first movie was
disarming as it introduced the unlikeliest of action heroes—an eternally hungry, overweight panda named Po, voiced by Jack Black—in a rousing and funny underdog tale. A big part of its appeal was the comic spin it brought to a mentor-student relationship between Po and his diminutive kung fu master Shifu, voiced in hilarious deadpan style by Dustin Hoffman. There was also the novelty of giving Po the opportunity to fight alongside his heroes, a quintet of martial arts wizards known as the Furious Five.
Shifu has little more than a glorified cameo role in this sequel, and Po’s friendship with the Furious Five is a given. The emphasis this time is on a power-hungry enemy named Lord Shen, a —
—peacock voiced by Gary Oldman, and a parallel story in which Po searches for inner peace by discovering the true story of his parentage. (If you recall, he was raised by a loving if lightheaded noodle-shop owner named Mr. Ping, who happens to be a goose.)
The result is a movie that’s much more serious in tone, with fewer surprises in its bag of tricks. I was reminded of The Empire Strikes Back, which not only demanded that you know the first part of that saga, but took its story to a deeper level by involving the hero’s search for his true father.
The folks at DreamWorks Animation are obviously counting on the audience bringing good feelings about Po and company into the theater with them, so they’ve taken the risk of lowering the comedy quotient and emphasizing new characters and plot elements. I, for one, was happy to go along for the ride, while some people may come away wishing they’d gotten more laughs out of the experience.
Animation veteran Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who was head of story and special sequence supervisor on the first Panda, makes a successful feature directing debut here, working with established characters and newcomers alike. Screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger have built on what they and their collaborators created in the first film. And the production design, by another returnee, Raymond Zibach, is pleasing to the eye, with unusual color schemes and Asian influences.
As sequels go, Kung Fu Panda 2 is quite good, a particular compliment at this point in the movie season…and by the finale we understand that there is at least one more installment to come.