What’s black and white and rad all over again? Chopsocky panda Po returns to save China from a fresh threat in “Kung Fu Panda 2,” a worthy sequel to DreamWorks Animation’s biggest non-“Shrek” hit that gets an extra kick from the addition of dynamic 3D fight sequences. Expanding the Jack Black character’s mythology while ensuring his starry supporting cast — aka “the Furious Five” — has more to do this time around, the gangbusters-bound second helping shrewdly extends the original’s endearing, gorgeously art-directed world, shoring up the franchise’s foundation at the point other DWA follow-ups typically begin to wear out their welcome.
Developed under the title “The Kaboom of Doom,” this fast-tracked follow-up finds the honorable tradition of martial arts quite literally under fire from Lord Shen, a regal albino peacock who has developed a gunpowder-powered cannon that renders hand-to-hand combat obsolete. Taking a page from King Herod, Shen overreacts to a prophecy foretelling that a panda will be his downfall by endangering the species with a ruthless extermination campaign — a harrowing backstory (for the little ones, at least) involving a teddy-cute baby Po.
As designed by Nico Marlet, Shen is an elegant, cold-blooded fighter, unfolding his tail like a giant paper fan and flinging his feathers like daggers at will. Shen’s moves are sinister yet hypnotic, an effect enhanced by Gary Oldman’s menacing voicework and the glaring red-eye motif that marks a signature of the character’s design. (Other new cast members include Masters Croc, Oxen and Rhino, played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Haysbert and Victor Garber, respectively.)
Rather than simply dashing off another adventure with a new villain, the way most superhero sequels do, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (with consulting help from Charlie Kaufman and Guillermo del Toro) opt to enrich their hero’s personal history. In the interim since “Kung Fu Panda,” Po has gotten over his underdog complex, embracing his unconventional fighting style to keep the Valley of Peace safe.
While Po’s newfound confidence removes the central conflict from the original, the character still poses his own greatest obstacle: Before he can hope to vanquish Shen, Po must find “inner peace” by coming to terms with the long-suppressed trauma of what happened to his birth parents. (You didn’t think James Hong’s hilarious noodle-cooking goose was his real dad, did you?)
Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who oversaw the stunning opening scene from the first film, employs other animation styles for sequences that take place in the past, the most striking of which is Shen’s origin story, rendered in the delicate paper-theater tradition. But even the principal 3D animation tips its hat to classic Chinese art and architecture, as production designer Raymond Zibach brings a vivid watercolor palette to gorgeous landscapes. The effect is enhanced by multiple tracking shots, as the camera follows the characters around the roofs and stairs of temples and other period buildings.
With all the movement involved, “Kung Fu Panda 2” lends itself to the stereoscopic format. An early action scene finds Po and the Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan and David Cross all return as animals who embody their respective fighting styles) teaming up to create exciting fighting combinations. The editing doesn’t always make it possible to follow each individual move, but the technique shows considerable improvement, even though no sequence comes close to the original’s rope-bridge fight for sheer narrative excitement.
Of the supporting cast, Tigress (Jolie) gets the most additional screen time, including a few scenes with Po that suggest the screenwriters toyed with the idea of a romantic subplot between the two. Still, there’s simply not enough room to do proper justice to every character in the film’s sizable ensemble.
Once again, the DreamWorks team demonstrates that humor is the primary weapon in its arsenal, relying on Black to crack wise throughout while doing their best to supply jokes that won’t date the movie a decade down the road. Appealing as they do to adults and kids alike, the laughs help to pave over certain shortcomings in the story — namely, the way it seems to be split down the middle, with Po cornering Shen at his palace earlier than expected, then working through the best way to fight him for the second half of the pic.
In contrast with the grainy, low-budget kung-fu pics that inspired the franchise, “Panda” offers considerable high-end polish, ranging from Hans Zimmer and John Powell’s bombastic score to the care taken in translating Po’s world to 3D. While not as fresh as the first, the sequel certainly makes good on its promise.