MOVIE REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda 2


This is the summer of sequels and the odds are rarely in favor of any sequel living up to the original.  Not everything is as lucky or as good as The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, Spider-Man 2, or the recent Fast Five.  The list of sequels that build on, improve upon, or become superior to their predecessor is extremely small.  Sadly, Kung Fu Panda 2 is another addition to the other list of lesser results.  It's not that Kung Fu Panda 2 is terrible by any means, it's that the first one was just so good.  It's initial success is its sequel's worst enemy.

The original gave us a bright, fresh, and funny origin story of Po, the noodle-making panda turned Dragon Warrior supreme, one of the most approachable and accessible animated heroes of recent memory.  Po had no angst or drama like other animated lead characters.  Thanks to Jack Black's vocal performance, he had a contagious sense of fanboy wonder, optimism, confidence, and physical comedy.

The trouble with the sequel is that it goes to a high extreme of trying to extend from the first story with drama, angst, and darkness that the original successfully lacked.  Ambitiously trying to expand an original story shouldn't be a fault to any sequel (take the almost-mirrored repeat that The Hangover Part II is to it's original), but it is in this case.  Kung Fu Panda 2 gets points for legitimately trying to not be a repeat, but too often fails to capture what made the original so good.

In this sequel, Po has taken to his role as the Dragon Warrior and reluctant leader of Master Shifu's (Dustin Hoffman) "Furious Five," Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross).  However, we learn that an old villain from years past, a deadly peacock by the name of Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), who is responsible for wiping out most of the panda population, including Po's parents, has returned to destroy kung fu and peace in the Valley.  Aided by his minion wolves, he fights with a deadly new invention, the gunpowder cannon.

One of the best aspects of the original was the Po-Shifu relationship, but Shifu is disappointingly away off-screen for much of this movie, taking us away from Dustin Hoffman's great work.  Po is still his self-congratulating self of "awesomeness," calling out his kung fu moves by name like he's popped too many quarters playing Street Fighter 2 or Marvel vs. Capcom at the local arcade.  However, by darkly connecting Lord Shen to his lack of parents (coincidentally, a lot of the movie takes place at dreary night or in dark interiors), they add too much grief to the lovable guy and take some of the fun out of him.  That cloud extends over the movie too because there isn't a lot of laugh-out-loud humor to speak of.  There were more than several bored adults and kids in the theater where this critic was present.

Still, one thing Kung Fu Panda 2 does do well is improve on the original visually.  Despite those aforementioned abundant darkly-lit scenes, the action and animation has only gotten faster and more detailed. The fight scenes still pop with choreography and creativity, even if there's not as much spirit behind them.  The opening credit shadow-puppet sequence alone is a wonder to see.  To say Kung Fu Panda 2 isn't as good as the original is true, but no entirely fair because of the original's brilliance.  It's still a step above a lot of other really bad sequels and, if you stay into the end credits, promises a very interesting third chapter that may redeem the series.  Stay tuned!  There's still bounce to come in this "ska-doosh!"

LESSON #1: FINDING INNER PEACE-- Master Shifu's quest for inner peace from the original has become Po's quest in the sequel.  While Shifu had to find a way to let go of a failed student in the first, Po, in this sequel, must reconcile his inner loss because of being adopted and never knowing his parents.  That threatened inner struggle only hurts his chances at succeeding against the one responsible for that loss, Lord Shen.  Not until Po finds that inner peace does his truly tap into his own strength and greatness.

LESSON #2: LETTING GO OF THE PAST-- This may sound an awful lot like Lesson #1, but, in many cases, it takes letting go of events in the past for people to find inner peace in the present.  Maybe it's reconciling a past mistake, a family loss, or letting go of revenge.  Both heroes and villains have this going on in Kung Fu Panda 2.  Lessons #1 and 2 go hand-in-hand here.

LESSON #3: THE GREAT ROLE OF A FATHER FIGURE-- As crock-potted of a noodle-making goofy goose Mr. Ping, Po's adoptive father, is, the goose still raised a good kid and provides more sage advice and guidance than even Po realizes.  In many respects, Master Shifu fills the same void for Po too.  Again, stay after the credits, and you'll like where the potential third movie is going with this theme.