REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda 2's Meandering Story Doesn't Dim Its Visual Delights
A quest movie that's too long on destination to make for much of a journey, Kung Fu Panda 2 is nevertheless scenic, inventively playful, and successfully serious when it wants to be. In this sequel to the 2008 DreamWorks hit, goof-off panda and accredited dragon warrior Po (voiced again by Jack Black) learns that the goose/noodle-monger (sweetly voiced by James Hong) he calls Dad may not be his biological father. Po's ensuing search for his true identity has a convenient overlap with his responsibility to save China from an imperial peacock named Shen (Gary Oldman). Both objectives begin and end with the vengeful, feathered fiend.
I must admit I'm not clear on what made Shen such a raging killjoy. A gorgeous opening sequence of what looks like cut-out animation suggests that his parents disowned him after he revealed a genocidal streak, a deterministic detail that clouds Po's later epiphany that discovering your true self (and in Shen's case, breaking the cycle of hurt) is a choice. Joining Po on his mission are Tigress (Angelina Jolie, all dulcet monosyllables and chopsocky grunts), Mantis (the congenitally fuzzy Seth Rogen, too little used for the incongruousness of the choice to work), Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Viper (Lucy Liu). The third, silent partner in the quest is Po's directive, issued by his water droplet-juggling mentor (Dustin Hoffman), to find inner peace.
Rather than play out a picaresque of character-revealing encounters and deepening bonds on the way to the ultimate battle, Po and Co. confront Shen and his army of lupine warriors more or less directly. News from that front is that the enemy has acquired weapons that "breathe fire and spit metal," which could mean the end not just of Po but kung fu itself. Tigress has trained for 20 years to learn her "hard style," but even iron fists are no match for a molten cannonball. "Destruction has become too cheap, too easy!" an American general said after the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. And thus the return to a lesser arsenal in real-life combat, as if to preserve not just the world but the slow-burning, preoccupying point of strategic warfare. Bombs bursting in air have always had a remote and limited poetry onscreen, something demonstrated by the enduring tradition and popularity of wuxia films, which are the subject of various tributes here.
Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson's background in design and animation seems to have informed the best parts of Kung Fu Panda 2 -- its splendid palette of color and detail, rich but crisp and balanced (Guillermo del Toro served as a creative consultant, and one of Po's murky, indelible nightmares bears his distinctive mark); and that palette's harmony with both the engaged use of 3-D and the witty and well-defined battle sequences. A highlight is the group's infiltration of enemy lines under one of those giant, rippling, caterpillar-like dragon puppets used in Chinese New Year parades. The paper dragon ingests enemies like popcorn, thrashes them along the length of its body and dispenses them out the back end; seen from above it's a sight gag with legs.
A blessed companion to the visuals is the script's lack of familiar kiddie filler -- there are no dance breaks set to ironically bad pop songs, no sampling from the scummed-over pool of anodyne movie references, and no pandering, puerile jokes. As written by Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel, even Po's doofy, dude-ish affect avoids the tiresome contrivance of so many of his portly confrères. As voiced by Black, Po is an engaging combination of bravura and broad vowels, slayer and soft touch. Po's posse doesn't get the chance to hit more than one note, and because almost two-thirds of the film comprise a kind of extended climax, Po himself may cycle through defeat and resurrection one too many times to maintain a strong narrative flow. (The one of those times that involves a soothsayer voiced by Michelle Yeoh, however, is a delight.) It's a shame that Panda 2's vivid aesthetic is paired with such a thinly drawn story, especially when the film seems willing to go to dark and original places, and the viewer is willing to cheer its boisterous, black-eyed hero on, wherever he may bumble.