With the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman and James Hong; Directed by Jennifer Yuh; Rated PG (for sequences of martial arts action and mild violence). 90 minutes.
“Kung Fu Panda” wasn’t one of DreamWorks Animation’s more interesting offerings, but it made money and so now we have KUNG FU PANDA 2. In some ways it’s a vast improvement on the first film, and in other ways it’s a letdown. Kids should have a good time, but this probably isn’t the all ages pleaser that the original “Shrek” was but, then, that’s a tough bar to reach.
Po (voice of Jack Black) is now a regular member of the martial arts team that includes Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and their spiritual leader Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). When a group of wolves starts terrorizing local villages, it’s up to them to set things right. As it turns out, the wolves are acting under the leadership of Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock who has been warned that he will be defeated by someone both black and white… like a panda.
The film follows two trajectories. Po and the others must defeat Lord Shen, an ongoing battle which seems to reach a climax several times making for a very long 90 minutes. The other, more interesting story has Po trying to find out his true origin. His father Mr. Ping (James Hong), a goose, reveals the “secret” that Po was adopted. His discovery of how he came to Mr. Ping’s restaurant, and the role the evil Lord Shen had in that, provides much of the character drama of the piece.
On the plus side, the animation is inventive and quite stunning. Some of the 3D sequences actually work, and the film uses the interesting convention of having flashbacks in 2D traditional animation. In terms of technical skill and artistry, DreamWorks Animation is the only one to come close to the industry leader, Pixar. The attention to detail and to character is superb.
On the downside is the script, which not only takes Po through several monotonous battles, but is surprisingly weak in character. While Po, Lord Shen and Mr. Ping are quite vivid, most of the other characters are so thin that you have to check the closing credits to see that Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Dustin Hoffman, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, and David Cross are repeating their characters from the original. Oldman fares best among the newcomers, with Dennis Haysbert’s distinctive voice making Master Oxen noticeable, but you’d be hard-pressed to notice that Jean-Claude van Damme and Victor Garber also lent their voices here. The prominence of the voice cast has been a hallmark of DreamWorks Animation. Here, most of the players are simply names in the closing credits whose presence you have to take on faith.
“Kung Fu Panda 2” is a serviceable film. Whether you think the pluses outweigh the minuses will be a matter of taste. If the film works as children’s entertainment, from the perspective of the animation aficionado the more interesting development is the debut of director Jennifer Yuh. An animator who has worn many hats in film and TV animation, her work here makes one wonder what she would do with stronger material. Let’s hope we get the chance to see.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.