Bolder, Smart Antics in 'Panda 2' Approach Original's Quality

Directed by: Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Runtime: 91 minutes
Grade: B+

So often, we're asked to enjoy animated films with an air of familiarity that harks to the first (or second, or third) entry in a series, where tag lines reemerge and the story walks and talks just like those that came before it. Kung Fu Panda 2 isn't immune to this; the mix of spirited brawls, throwbacks to classic '70s and '80s kung-fu cinema, and jabs at an unlikely, jiggly hero strays little from the formula that worked with Dreamworks' Oscar-nominated surprise hit from a few years back. Instead, the artistic gang has tweaked it a little by holding back on the humor and dialing up the explosive candy-coated action, while taking a serious angle by exploring the origin of Po, an orphaned panda fresh in the ways of the hand-to-hand art form. The result isn't a step-up in quality or originality, really, more maintaining status quo than anything else, but this brisk, action-driven romp is refreshingly free of the been-there, done-that rustiness that causes sequels to creak at the joints, and it does have a few creative surprises up its sleeve.

We're taken back to the hills of ancient China shortly after the events of the first Kung-Fu Panda, where Po (Jack Black) continues to train with the Furious Five as the newly-crowned "Dragon Warrior" -- a pre-destined hero of the land. His recent lessons focused on inner peace, led by his red panda master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), are interrupted by the threat of a new villain: Shen (Gary Oldman), a conniving peacock with aristocratic blood and capable kung-fu techniques, though he's more interested in the unyielding power of artillery and explosives than the honor of a fair fight. In the midst of a battle, triggered by an insignia on one of his opponent's sleeves, Po begins to have flashes of a memory filled with fire and violence that interrupt his butt-kicking, which seem to connect with his life before he started living with his dad, the chef- goose Mr. Ping (James Hong), at the noodle house. His journey to save China seems as if it'll have a second purpose this time: to discover where he comes from, and to find his own inner peace.

Nearly all of the positive comments paid to the original, from its merit solely as an action film to its consistent humor and eye-grabbing visuals (not to mention the strong voice cast, all of which return), can undeniably be carried over to Kung Fu Panda 2, a sharp and spirited piece of animation from Dreamworks that knows what it's doing when satisfying a wide-aged audience. Sure, the blubbery slapstick shtick knocking Po oafishly around grows more tedious this time around, and the cartoonish action goes overboard when watching a snake stretch, a hand-flung rickshaw fly down the street, or balls (or arrows) of fire conveniently not ignite our heroes. The excitement factor, though, rubs out these issues; you're so absorbed by the rush of energy that propels the simple story of the Furious Five Six charging to save China -- and, at the same time, saving kung-fu itself by defeating artillery with their bare hands -- that its zanier antics camouflage themselves against the barrage of visually-interesting delights.

Dreamworks have also ramped up the design for Kung Fu Panda 2, spicing it up with some chic, dark new artistry. The designers either must have heard the praise that the hand-drawn watercolor-esque style received or discovered the creative potential on their own, because it's much more prevalent this time around within the core computer-generated imagery. All Po's memories (and a particularly clever dream sequence, involving a renegade radish) appear in this style, creating an elegant union between the two as his mind flashes from the present to the past. On top of that, choosing a peacock as the main villain opens up the opportunity for incredible eye-popping visuals, which the film exploits; the spread of Shen's wings, often draped in the dark, ominous blues of night and the radiance of iron-forged reds and yellows, create some really striking displays. The same sort of condensed, textured ancient-China scenery returns from the first film -- flourishing, green vistas and bustling villages -- but there's a healthy dose of creativity here that's more than just a lazy carry-over of the same models.

Kung Fu Panda 2's ace-in-the-hole, though, comes in some modest intelligence that underlines the script's main action thrust, and the structure it builds around orphans, rejection, rediscovering contentment and the "scars" that form in its place. While it's not enough to elevate this sequel to the caliber of a thinking man's animated film (though the aforementioned radish dream comes close to suggesting otherwise), it does use that curiosity and inner turmoil as a clever backbone for the progression of Po's story and the surfacing of a convincing villain, instead of merely creating another "big bad" to challenge the Dragon Warrior's pedigree ... or something simple-minded along those lines. There's some heft here, alongside a very blatant anti-weaponry message, and it's heightened by the quality of the villain himself: Gary Oldman takes his voice into piercing, exaggerated mode for Shen, and when matched with his sinister, albeit frail saunter and wing-spreading around his decadently-lit throne room, keeping your eyes glued to what this thwarted member of royalty does is more than a little gripping.

That's all secondary to the main point, though: Kung Fu Panda 2 is nearly, if not just as much fun as its predecessor, and it's because of the very clear balance stricken between pleasing its two audiences and concentrating on what gives the series its pulse. Dreamworks relies less on humor, makes it more dynamic and epic-scaled in terms of action (there's a crumbling tower scene at the center that's breathtaking), and pumps it full of personality that's not insulting to either adults or children. Sure, there might be too much action and colorful explosions, and the more intimate moments involving Po's discovery of inner peace and his lineage might be crammed into, and rushed through, its 90-minute run, but when animation's this thrilling on a base level -- I don't hesitate in saying that it's one of the best action movies of 2011 -- then the lack of restraint really doesn't matter, and will be most welcome in the all-but-assured sequel that's suggested at the end.

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