While the waistline of Po slims down, his legend expands in Kung Fu Panda 2, a sequel lacking the element of surprise after the original sneaked up on audiences like a ninja. Part two is even more gorgeous to behold, and deeper in substance as Po (voice of Jack Black) seeks inner peace and the truth about his parentage.
That's heavy stuff for a panda to carry on his sloped shoulders, and also occasionally for a movie aimed at children. Kung Fu Panda 2 contains enough silliness and stunts they shouldn't try at home to remain entertaining, but this is a remarkably mature PG 'toon.
Like the franchise, Po has grown up fast. He's eating healthier, settling into his role as Dragon Warrior and front bear for the Furious Five band of martial arts critters. I miss the childish Po a little, the chosen one underestimated by everyone except himself. Watching him clumsily grow into his destiny was inspiring, especially to kids, I'd imagine. Po's problems are disturbing now — the parenthood angle smacks of Herod and the Holocaust — so after-show talks might be in order.
Kung Fu Panda 2 presents the Furious Five with a formidable villain, an albino peacock named Lord Shen (Gary Oldman, and what a silky, sinister voice). Shen has something in common with Thor in that compulsion to conquests leads to banishment from the kingdom. He's developing super weapons — cannons using the new invention gunpowder — to usurp the throne. But he needs metal, lots of it, invading Po's valley to steal it.
Meanwhile, Po is plagued by visions leading him to finally question whether the noodle-cooking goose Mr. Ping (James Hong) is really his father. The inner peace Po's mentor Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) preaches seems out of reach. Solving one issue will resolve them all, in the franchise's Zen for Dummies perspective.
First-time director Jennifer Yuh Nelson earned this gig after designing the first film's opening sequence, a dazzling tribute to the Shaw Brothers' chopsocky grindhouse hits of the 1970s. Nelson goes for a Zhang Yimou epic vibe this time around, with vast landscapes, shadow puppet effects, grand palace designs and bold colors leaping off the screen in 3-D. Yes, the surcharge for glasses is worth it this time.
Sensing that some celebrity voices were shortchanged in part one, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger give extra business for Mantis (Seth Rogen) and Crane (David Cross) while Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) take it easier this time. Tigress (Angelina Jolie) softens her attitude toward Po as his resolve toughens. His maturity also eliminates the need for Hoffman's verbal slow burns as Shifu.
It's all yin and yang, push and pull. What Kung Fu Panda 2 loses in one place it finds somewhere else in a different form. Judging from the climax, a third chapter — assuming the box office fortune cookie doesn't crumble — will be even more emotionally wrenching for Po. I can't wait.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.