Kung Fu Panda 2

Many of us have asked the question, “Who am I?”  The question occurs to us when we are at an emotional and developmental crossroads or when we behave in a way outside of our usual character.  It also is sometimes asked after a long weekend of heavy drinking, but I digress.  Questioning our very purpose and identity is usually a deeply moving and life-altering moment for people.  Who knew the same was true for pandas.

Po the Dragon Warrior (voiced by Jack Black) and the Furious Five, Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Viper and Crane (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu and David Cross) protect the Valley of Peace with the aid and direction of their teacher, Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman).  Shifu tells Po the next aspect of his training is to develop inner peace which is achieved either through decades of meditation or by suffering great personal pain.  Meanwhile, Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman) is using the pain of perceived betrayal by his parents to craft a plan to take over all of China.  Shen is from the city where fireworks were invented but, many years earlier, he saw the potential to use the explosive powder to create weapons.  When the Soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh) predicts he will be defeated by a hero who is black and white, Shen takes his wolf army and attacks a nearby village of giant pandas.  Disgusted by his action, Shen’s parents banish him from the city.  Shen uses the next years to plot his revenge and develop a weapon that will defeat any means used against him, including kung fu.  When Shen returns to the city of his birth and uses the weapon to take it over, Master Shifu sends Po and the Furious Five to defeat him; however, Shen is deeply connected to Po’s past and may have the upper hand on the Dragon Warrior even without his new weapon.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” follows much the same plot as the 2008 original, but this time the story is more emotional and meaningful as Po tries to figure out who he is.  His quest leads him to doubt himself but also takes him to a place of knowledge and understanding.  Again, this is similar to the first film but Po’s journey feels more mature as he comes to grips with how he arrived at his father’s noodle shop as a young cub.  Much of “Kung Fu Panda 2” could be called familiar.  That would usually be a complaint but in this case it’s more of a compliment as the filmmakers took many aspects of the original film and made them better.

One thing that isn’t better is the voice work.  It was very good last time and it is still very good.  Jack Black, who isn’t one of my favorite live-action film actors, shines once again as Po, giving the roly-poly character a voice to match.  His goofier lines, many of which I’m sure were adlibbed during recording sessions, never go too far over the top, maintaining the frenetic energy of Po without turning him into a complete buffoon.  Despite his role being mostly a cameo this time, Dustin Hoffman still gives Shifu the proper amount of gravitas while making us laugh as he describes his deep pain the day Po was selected Dragon Warrior.  Gary Oldman makes Shen a completely dislikable character with a very mannered delivery that quickly turns evil and cruel.  While the roles of the Furious Five are expanded in the film, it’s difficult for any of the actors to stand out when the dialog amounting to one character is spread over five.  Still, each is given a few lines to shine, especially Seth Rogen, whose character gives us all the sordid details of praying mantis courtship.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” is rated PG for sequences of martial arts action and mild violence.  Only the youngest children will find anything in the film frightening.  One scene where Po is hit with Shen’s weapon may be the most intense of the movie.

The common wisdom states a sequel is never better than the original.  The overwhelming majority of the time, that’s true; however, “Kung Fu Panda 2” is that rare exception to the rule.  While it is very similar in tone and style to the original, it offers a better story and bigger heart.  And while aimed squarely at kids, parents will find plenty to enjoy as well.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” gets five guitars.

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