A film review by Craig J. Koban June 6, 2011


2011, PG, 90 mins.


Po: Jack Black / Tigress: Angelina Jolie / Lord Shen: Gary Oldman / Mantis: Seth Rogen / Crane: David Cross / Shifu: Dustin Hoffman

Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson / Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger.


If you thought that the strangest thing about the first KUNG FU PANDA film was that its hero was a Chinese panda named Po that became an unlikely martial arts dynamo dubbed “The Dragon Warrior”, then think again. 

Remember, he had a sensei that was another pint-sized animal and his kung fu companions were comprised of a tiger, a mantis, a monkey, a crane, and a snake respectively.  Perhaps even stranger was that he had a father that was…a stork and a restaurant owner whose specialty was his noodle soup, which contained an infamous secret ingredient known to no one, which is why he called it…his secret ingredient soup.  In retrospect, a panda performing kung fu is as normal as anything in this film’s peculiar universe. 

Although KUNG FU PANDA’s concept of animals that are also skilful adepts at martial arts is hardly as cutting edge and original as it appears (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, anyone?), the first film was still an unexpected surprise for how it successfully merged chop sockey action, picturesque Chinese locales, an unendingly likeable underdog hero, and spirited comic pratfalls.  The things I really remember with fondness of that 2008 Dreamworks Animation effort was its boundless energy, enthusiasm for the underlining material, and the way star Jack Black made ideal use of all of his playful verbal energy.  More often than not, his caffeinated vitality and robust camera mugging are oftentimes cringe worthy in live action films, but I think he really found his niche as a voice actor playing Po.  He has never inhabited a more easily agreeable character, animated or not. 

KUNG FU PANDA 2 seems like an obligatory and unavoidable release, especially when one considers the box office might of its antecedent and the mass popularity of the characters themselves.  What’s interesting, though, is that this is a sequel that does what all great sequels should: it takes familiar personas and situations and instead of dryly regurgitating them, it expands upon them and explores previously uncharted territory.  KUNG FU PANDA 2 certainly attains the previous film’s colorful vibrancy, jolly merriment, and visceral action, but it perhaps does a better job of going deeper and more personally into Po’s life and upbringing, which consequently makes the film feel fuller and richer as an emotional experience.  Black’s larger-than-life boisterousness is still here, but this time his Po has to deal with some decidedly darker avenues of his past creeping up on him. 

The new film takes place shortly after the events of the first, where Po finally realized his lifelong ambition of being a mighty kung fu warrior under the tutelage of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).  His comrades, the "Furious Five", still consist of Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) and the six of them have become a fully fledged and tight knit unit.  When Shifu is not trying to impart his newest lesson of “finding inner peace” upon the stubborn Po (“My Innards are already very peaceful," he explains to him), Po and company spend their time keeping the kingdom safe and secure.   

One particular early mission in the film sees Po and his comrades defending a nearby village from some nasty and nefarious villains hell-bent on stealing all the metal the village has to offer.  The marauders are ruled over by their cunning and vile master, Lord Shen, who just happens to be a peacock and is voiced by the delightfully unhinged Gary Oldman.  It appears that Shen has a new cannon-like weapon that needs metal to work properly, which in turn will help Shen achieve his thirst for world conquest (pretty lofty ambitions for a bird).  Shen has one issue: his soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh) has prophesized that he will be killed by a black and white foe that bares a striking resemblance to a panda.  Because of his intense paranoia over the prophecy, Shen ordered a panda genocide years ago and it appears that Po’s biological parents were victims of the calamity.  When Shen learns of Po’s existence, he begins his despicable quest to capture and kill Po, while Po himself must come to grips with the fact that his father may not be his actual father.  Call me crazy, but his daddy being a stork should have been a dead giveaway.

For a film containing cute talking animals, KUNG FU PANDA 2 dives deep into some very dark and dreary thematic waters.  There is also unexpected ambition in Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger’s screenplay that manages to probe deeper into the first film’s mythology and character dynamics.  There is an aura of unsettling trauma with Po himself, who slowly comes to the realization that Lord Shen may have had much to do with the slaughter of his kind and played a large hand in the apparent death of his parents.  Po is by no means a darker and sulkier character, but he’s definitely more melancholic and has more psychological depth this go around.  Tying the film’s villain so directly with Po’s past is also smart because it makes the antagonist that much more of a tangible and menacing threat.  Beyond that, KUNG FU PANDA 2 also expounds upon kinder virtues of the nature of parenthood and family and that the best parents are often the ones that nurture and love the most.  Po could care less that his papa is a stork; he’s still his real loving father. 

The film was directed by Jennifer Yuh Wilson (who worked on the first as an artist) and this marks the first time a female director has made a Hollywood animated film.  Like its predecessor, KUNG FU PANDA 2 is a lavish and beautiful rendered CGI nirvana that highlights why Dreamworks is more than giving Pixar a serious run for their money.  The film is a technologically precise visual feast for the eyes that is accentuated by – for once! – subtly immersive and fluid 3D that does not lead to eyestrain or migraine headaches.  The action scenes pack an exhilarating and fever pitched wallop; the detail of the quieter and more observant scenes of the environments that Po and his friends exist in is extraordinarily sumptuous (these films really appreciate the beauty of their artificial exteriors).  Wilson has some compelling aesthetic tricks up her sleeve as well: imaginary sequences and flashbacks to the past are handled with two-dimensional looking shadow puppets and a painterly watercolor palette, which provides a nice dichotomy with the crisper three-dimensional images.  Despite its slapstick sense of whimsy, KUNG FU PANDA 2 is a serious triumph of artistic vision through and through.   

Jack Black’s rowdy and wily vivacity returns in mass dosages again as Po, but I was also pleased to see that Angelina Jolie is given more of a character this time to invest in with Tigress (that, and there are hints of an inter-species romance between her and Po for future installments).  Dustin Hoffman, albeit in a more subdued capacity, is again serenely authoritative as Shifu.  Gary Oldman is a welcome scenery chewing new addition to the already hefty voice cast of familiars, but I just wished that the likes of Seth Rogen and David Cross (both imminently hysterical screen comedians) were allowed to flex their natural funny bones more here.  Jackie Chan, a kung fun silver screen icon, is barely a presence in the film (perhaps because of his lack of command of the English language) as is Lucy Liu, and their characters seem typified more by what they are instead of who they are.  Yet, KUNG FU PANDA 2, despite its hiccups, emerges as a surprisingly delightful sequel that - while having itself rooted in cartoon tomfoolery – manages to develop deeper tones and themes to enrich its universe.

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