Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2

Review by Pete Roche

It’s been almost three years since Po the panda (Jack Black) left his stepfather’s noodle restaurant to fulfill his destiny as “Dragon Warrior” under the tutelage of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and defeat dastardly snow leopard Tai Long. 

Now, in KUNG FU PANDA 2, Po and his acrobatic animal friends in the Furious Five must defend the Valley of Peace against a new threat—power-hungry peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman).  An opening narrative explains that Shen was banished from his village long ago after he co-opted the magic of fireworks for his own evil ends (explosives). A soothsaying yak (Michelle Yeoh) predicts Shen will be thwarted by a warrior of “black and white.”  But in an effort to circumvent this fate, Shen and his wolf minions (led by Danny McBride) decimate the pacifist panda population.

Well, almost decimate.

Not unlike Batman, Superman, Rocky, and other iconic franchise heroes, Po spends this second installment battling a new, “improved” adversary while resolving “daddy issues.”  He’s Luke Skywalker with paws and a paunch, and this is his self-actualizing EMPIRE STRIKES BACKPo appreciates his humble upbringing in goose Ping’s noodle eatery, but he’s curious about his real parents.  The quest to uncover Po’s past gets serious when his memory is jogged during a skirmish with Shen’s wolves in a bunny commune.  Shen is pillaging the denizens of the Valley for metal to forge into incendiary ammunition, which he’ll use to conquer all of China (thus the film’s working title, KA-BOOM OF DOOM). Naturally, the prickly peacock’s idea of scrap metal includes everyone else’s musical instruments and cooking utensils. 

Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson (storyboard artist and video editor whose resume includes MADAGASCAR and SPAWN) Po’s latest adventure is more entertaining than a non-Pixar CGI kiddie cartoon has any right to be. PANDA 2 is action-packed, emotionally resonant, and original enough in execution to justify its existence.  The topography of the Valley of Peace (viewed in 3D) is verdant and lush.  The ancient Eastern architecture is captivating.  The assortment of fur-and-feather characters is imaginative—and benefits from sublime voice-casting.

Angelina Jolie returns as Tigress.  Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) also reprise their roles as Po’s butt-kicking pals and creature confidantes.  Joining the gang in the resistance against Shen are Master Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Thundering Rhino (Victor Garber), and Storming Ox (Dennis Haysbert).  They support Po even when his bumbling gets the best of him—which makes for some great gags.   Tigress in particular sympathizes with the gluttonous panda’s need to learn about his birth parents and Shen’s reason for having targeted them. 

The tone gets heavy for younger viewers—particularly after Shen’s lupine thugs topple the royal capital, plunging the Valley into darkness.  But the protagonist’s climactic “inner peace” epiphany—involving a hypnotic Tai Chi tango with a raindrop—is visually and thematically eloquent.  A protracted epilogue introduces an intriguing new face, hinting at a possible second sequel.  Threetoosh!  2 ½ out of 4 stars.

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