I always feel like such an ogre when I beat up on movies like Kung Fu Panda 2: they’re so sweet and so well meaning that their basically rehashed nature becomes almost beside the fact. Like its protagonist, this one is cute, cuddly and far less effective than it clearly thinks it is. It ultimately succumbs to the follies of sequelitis – attempting to recapture the magic of the first film simply by emulating the same formula. It’s a near thing sometimes, but ultimately, the corporate nature of the enterprise does it in.
To its credit, it boasts a truly beautiful look: expanding upon the first film’s cartoon animal version of wuxia China. Its landscapes spring straight out of a children’s storybook – muddied by the infernal 3D glasses, but gorgeous nonetheless – and the innovative fight choreography reflects the traits of the participating characters. Consider, for instance, the new villain Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman), an ambitious peacock out to conquer all of China with his ferocious cannons. His tail becomes a sort of war fan, spread out to avoiding damage, then tucked in to launch sharp feathers at his opponents. The remaining characters in Kung Fu Panda reflect their various physiques accordingly, and Shen’s nasty gunpowder contraptions present the sort of challenge that even kung fu’s mightiest warriors may prove powerless to stop.
But stop it they must, led by the roly-poly Po (voiced by Jack Black) and his good buddies from the monastery. A series of faint memories spur Po on: visions of his panda family slaughtered by Shen in an effort to halt a mystic prophecy (something about a black and white warrior settling his hash). That conceit helps drive the plot forward, but also lends Kung Fu Panda 2 an uncomfortably dark edge, which the first film neatly avoided.
Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson can’t fall back on the unexpected freshness which the original rode to the finish line. No one expected much from Part One, which allowed it to sneak up on everyone and knock us flat. The second film has an established brand name to live up to, and refrains from any unnecessary surprises. Instead, it posits another round of lost infants, evil conquerors and mystic destinies to carry the day, all dutifully copied from corporate Hollywood’s Build-a-Script playbook. That snuffs out a vital spark, which Nelson struggles vainly to recreate amid the environment and character design.
Undue clutter hobbles the film as well. Everyone’s back for the new adventure, including Po’s master Shifu (voiced by Dustion Hoffman) and the Kung Fu Five, as well as new characters voiced by Michelle Yeoh, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Victor Garber. At 95 minutes, Kung Fu Panda 2 barely finds enough time to cram them all in, and most of them are mainly here to sell more Happy Meal toys. The cast largely responds in kind: professional, but barely registering the energy necessary to evoke a presence. A few trite lessons about inner peace benefit from Nelson’s keen visual sensibilities, but do more to set up the inevitable Kung Fu Panda 3 than temper the current film’s problems.
To its credit, it moves along briskly, and the jokes retain a kind of resolute competence that keeps the audience engaged. Nothing about the film feels inappropriate or out of place, making it reliable babysitter fodder for families in search of some distraction. But none of these characters endear themselves to us the way other Dreamworks figures do. There’s no Shrek or Hiccup hidden within their ranks, and while Black remains an engaging presence, he’s still Black in panda form rather than any kind of recognizable character. Considering the franchise ambitions on display, you’d think they’d work a little harder to endear itself to us. It’s a close call, but while I enjoyed parts of Kung Fu Panda 2, I don’t think I’ll miss it very much when it’s gone.