When Kung Fu Panda was released in 2008, I was not prepared. Like Po, the titular Kung Fu fighting panda bear, the film was a diamond in the rough -- a wise Buddhist parable about destiny, identity, mentality and harmony, which also happened to be a cute and funny cartoon that tripled as an epic kung fu movie. Needless to say, these were not achievements readily discernible from a title like Kung Fu Panda and the tagline “featuring the voice of Jack Black!”
However, like another big sequel being released this summer (The Hangover II) Kung Fu Panda 2 is facing a challenge in the raised expectations of its audience, and the potential staleness of its subject matter.
So, does the sequel build upon the strong foundation of the original?
Short answer: Sort of.
In this second chapter, Po the Panda (Jack Black) is now The Dragon Master, living alongside his idols The Furious FIve -- Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). Po finally has the life he dreamed of (battling bad guys as a Kung Fu legend), but that happiness is soon shattered. One day, while in the midst of battle, Po is confronted by the Wolf Boss (Danny McBride), a villain whose armor bears a strange insignia -- one that sends all kinds of repressed memories flooding back into Po’s mind, depicting his days as a child and hinting at his true origins.
These unlocked memories knock Po off his kung fu center, and he is instructed by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) to learn new techniques of inner peace and harmony if he wants to both settle his soul and take his kung fu to the next level. Of course there is little time to meditate: The Furious Five (and Po) soon learn of the evil Lord Shen’s (Gary Oldman) return -- a nefarious kung fu master who is connected to the wolf bandits, and has developed a new weapon that could conquer both kung fu and China itself. The Furious Six set off for the city to stop Shen and save the day.
And so, it is on the road to avoid all the hard questions facing him that Po inevitably meets his destiny -- one which goes far beyond his initial quest to become The Dragon Warrior.
As stated, the great strength of Kung Fu Panda was in its balance (insert Buddhist pun). The comedy was fun, Jack Black was well-suited to the role of Po; the martial arts action was epic and exciting to behold (even with cartoon animals); most of all, the script was so good, on so many levels, that there were multiple times when the film gave me goosebumps, or even had me choking up (R.I.P. Master Oogway). Kung Fu Panda 2 is a much more slick and polished product than the original -- and the keyword here is “product.”
Like this summer’s other big animated feature (Pixar’s Cars 2), Po and Kung Fu Panda are a recognized brand now, and inevitably that change in awareness was going to affect the film. Where the first installment had breathing room to build a tight and cohesive multi-layered narrative, this sequel just dives right into a formulaic summer blockbuster plot. After ten minutes we have the conflict, villain, and the lesson Po needs to learn all set in place at rushed speed. Where the first film implemented action sequences at logical and organic points in the story, this sequel functions more like a three-act superhero movie: fight sequence in the beginning, pivotal action sequences in the middle, big set piece climax at the end. While some of the action is definitely slicker (now that Po and the Furious Five have more cohesive group techniques), a lot of it inevitably falls into that category of jumbled, no-stakes, hard-to-follow sequences you see in so many modern action flicks. A slightly disappointing downturn.
Thankfully, most of these issues begin to clear up some time past the halfway mark of the film. What we get towards the end is the smarter, more meaningful and resonant Kung Fu Panda that many critics fell in love with. The filmmakers indulge less in arbitrary action and Jack Black schtick, and spend more time developing Po and expanding those of themes of identity, mentality, harmony and destiny that made the first film so great.
I will say that the writers -- Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, with help from others -- do a wonderful job of tying off some of the lingering plot threads from the first film (for example, the gag about Po, a panda, thinking he’s the son of Ping, a goose). The script weaves those dangling threads into a new story that ties together both the narrative and thematic arcs of Po’s story, while simultaneously expanding the scope and size of the Kung Fu Panda world. They even manage to leave the door open for a third film ;-) . This is all to say: the problem for me was not in the story, just how the story was executed. Read More