Of all the DreamWorks Animation features, there’s none I’ve enjoyed more than the original 2008 Kung Fu Panda. That’s probably because it’s the one least like a typical DreamWorks Animation feature.
Kung Fu Panda 2 sticks to the formula that made the original work: memorable lines, Jack Black’s quirky voice work and a savvy balance of action, goofiness and earnest storytelling. Po the panda (Black) is now a famous kung-fu warrior, working alongside the Furious Five, but a new menace awaits. The white peacock Shen (Gary Oldman), cast out by his royal family for weaponizing gunpowder, has put together a powerful force to take over China. And he may have had something to do with why there’s not much family resemblance between Po and his duck-billed father (James Hong).
Black in live-action can sometimes be a lot to take, but that’s largely because he often seems like a human cartoon. Po may be his perfect role, as he gets to do his “Am I not awesome?” voice without his performance becoming all eyebrows, and animators can bring subtlety to the serious moments. And most important, the gags are built into the character.
Director Jennifer Yuh, meanwhile, brings another blast of fun to the fight sequences, choreographed with all the exuberant energy of a Jackie Chan classic. One terrifically conceived sequence finds Po and the Five battling opponents while cloaked in a dragon costume, with an overhead view turning their progress through a town’s streets into an old-school video game. Maybe the premise makes it easy, but the action always emerges naturally from the story.
It’s hard not to be a little disappointed in the diminished role of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), who’s largely absent in favor of beefed-up interaction between Po and his dad. Kung Fu Panda 2 may not be as richly characterized as its predecessor, but it’s still a DreamWorks rarity: a movie Pixar would be proud to claim as one of its own.
KUNG FU PANDA 2
Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman