This follow-up does what all follow-ups should do and that is to extend the story instead of simply trying to replicate it. In the original, Po the Panda, the greatest kung fu fanboy of all time, was astonishingly chosen as the legendary dragon warrior, the hero destined to save kung fu. In this chapter, with him finding his kung fu groove, he must save kung fu from a new weapon and its wielder, a vindictive peacock determined to take over China. Po must find inner peace to overcome this awesome threat.
Jack Black is back as Po, who is still in awe of the fact that he gets to hang with kung fu legends, the Furious Five. He begins having flashbacks to his youth and goes to his father Mr. Ping (James Hong, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) to learn more about where he came from. Turns out he was adopted. I would have thought the fact that his father is a goose would have clued him in much earlier. What Po doesn't know is that the evil peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman, HARRY POTTER) has something to do with why he was not raised by his panda parents.
This is basically the entire emotional crux of the story. Po must learn about his past (which is not much of a secret to the audience due to a nicely animated 2D prologue) and come to terms with the fact that his life didn't start off perfectly. In a nice parallel, Lord Shen has parent issues as well, due to his parents banishing him for what he did to the pandas after the Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) foretold that he would be taken out by a warrior of black and white.
Po's excitable personality and less than conventional kung fu style provide a nice dose of humor. A scene where Po and the Furious Five hide out in a Chinese dragon highlights the film's great gags and timing. It's a poop joke, but an inspired one. Black is the perfect Po, giving the character the perfect mixed of geeky exuberance, clumsy naivety and unwavering determination. On a comedic level, I do miss the great interplay between Black's Po and Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu, which was a highlight of the original. Shifu makes only a brief appearance at the start and finish here.
Director Jennifer Yuh and writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, along with their fellow filmmakers, try to balance between the emotional crux, humor and rousing action. Sometimes rousing action wins. But at least the action is spectacularly mounted. Yuh rightfully frames her kinetic fight scenes with wider angles in order for us to actually see the choreography. This is a technique that has been forgotten in American action films, but does luckily remain in Asian kung fu flicks.
Po's new struggle isn't given the same grand treatment as the original. Previously he struggled to live up to a giant responsibility thrust on him that he was woefully unprepared for. Even those who were on his side like Shifu and Tigress (Angelina Jolie, SALT) didn't think he was going to succeed. Now he's got them and the rest of the Furious Five behind him. Moreover, mommy/daddy issues in films are a dime a dozen and it's not something Po seemed to have been struggling with until Shen and his cronies forced him to have flashbacks.
That said, the film provides an internal conflict that isn't as complex as the original, but it's still compelling. Po is a very likable unlikely hero. He's always been insecure about his role as the dragon warrior and his uncertainty about his past fits nicely into that conflict. He feared that he was an illegitimate kung fu fighter and now he fears he is an illegitimate son. The best scene in the film comes on a boat. Po is trying to master inner peace like Shifu, but gets frustrated and lashes out. Tigress comes out and tells him a tale of how she hardened her fists by punching a wall repeatedly for 20 years and now she doesn't feel anything. Firstly Po doesn't have the patience to dedicate himself to anything consistently for 20 minutes let along 20 years, but more importantly the scene begs the question if inner peace comes from simply not feeling or if it comes from something more complex.