Well, I guess it was too much to hope for, lightning striking twice in a row. (Then again, Pixar was able to pull it off to the third power with its Toy Story iterations.) But to put it bluntly, Kung Fu Panda 2 is no Kung Fu Panda.
No, it’s not bad (listen to the Miscweant, unable to outright badmouth anyone’s animated feature), it’s just that if KFP was a home run with two men on base, KFP2 is a double – a solid double nonetheless, maybe even drove in a run, but still a double. (Make that a triple if you’re not as much in love with Kung Fu Panda as I am.)
Then again, how do you match the elements that made the first film so (to borrow a word from its hero) awesome? KFP actually had three protagonists: Po, unsure if he can live up to a responsibility he’s dreamed of after it’s been dropped in his lap; Tai Lung, not your usual “I sound like a villain so I’m a villain” cartoon bad guy, but someone who feels, perhaps justly, he’s been wronged; and Shifu, forced to confront his own past.
By comparison, KFP2 is a ‘who am I?’ story with your standard-issue “I sound like a villain so I’m a villain” villain, and apart from some brilliantly choreographed action sequences – that’s pretty much it. In the midst of a battle with a marauding wolf pack, a glimpse of their insignia impacts Po on some primal level, stopping him dead in his tracks. Confronting his goose-dad Mr. Ping, the panda learns he’s been adopted (“I knew it!”) – but where did he come from, and what happened to his real family?
It’s no surprise to learn (especially because the film spells it out in a shadow puppet prologue) that said villain – the white peacock Lord Shen (villainously voiced by Gary Oldman) is not only Po’s antagonist but also the guy responsible for his parentless condition. Turns out way back Shen wiped out a panda village Pharaoh-style to prevent goat soothsayer’s (Michelle Yeoh) prophecy of his defeat at the hands of a black and white hero from coming true.
It’s been said (only by me, but I’m sure it’ll catch on) that inside of every CGI director there’s a 2D animator struggling to escape. No, wait; actually the film’s production designer Raymond Zibach said it back in ’08 when we talked about KFP’s opening dream sequence: “I'm worried that 2D animation is now considered the niche because it's too dependent on having a traditional look. What I liked about our sequence was that it really had a graphic, impactful style. I don't know if we could support that for an hour and 20 minutes, but it was great to see it on the big screen."
It’s not quite an hour and 20 minutes, but KFP2 is salted with Po’s 2D flashbacks and nightmares until he figures out his true origins. (Cartoon Co-inkydink Department: both Po and Tangled’s Rapunzel recall their origins via very similar baby crib-POV camera angles.) Apart from the visuals, Po and Shen’s parallel parental issues is the single element driving the narrative. The film tries to give Shen a Tai Lung-like moment of revelatory insight along with an attempt on his part to mind-game Po – but neither one really works because from what we’ve seen up to that point the protagonists simply don’t know enough about each other’s past to give those moments the emotional weight the filmmakers were hoping for.
Jack Black is back as Po of course, along with Dustin Hoffman as Shifu, Obi-wan Kenobi-ing it up for all he’s worth. (Having achieved ‘inner peace’ he’s simply not as interesting a character as he was in the first film.) The Furious Five’s original voicers (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross and Lucy Liu) return as well, and save for Jolie, once again with little to say. (Her Tigress, a believably softer character this time around shares a sympathetic scene with Po.)
We haven’t seen the last of Po, of course (or possibly of Shen or Tai Lung either, with neither of their fates definitively dealt with): a Nickelodeon series is on its way, with a cast of ringers replacing the movies’ stars. The series will undoubtedly be great fun, but I’ll be very surprised if they come up with any more deep, personal Issues for Po to deal with.