The premise for 2008’s Kung Fu Panda was conceptualized by a DreamWorks Animation executive, Michael Lachance, and has been around since the early ’90s. When it finally released, the production (directed by John Wayne Stevenson and Mark Osborne) slowly became a financial and critical success for the studio. In fact, the story of Po (voiced by Jack Black), a clumsy, overweight panda and kung-fu fanatic, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and is currently the 49th highest-grossing film of all time.
The second installment, simply titled Kung Fu Panda 2, reunites Po (Black returns as the voice-talent), now a full-fledged warrior, with his friends and allies, The Furious Five: Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), who has trained herself to physical and mental invulnerability, the approachable (albeit powerful) Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan), Mantis (voiced by Seth Rogen), who compensates for his small stature with speed and precision, the slick and compassionate Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu), and of course, Crane (voiced by David Cross), the team’s most patient member. Together, they must bring down a new threat, Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman), the former heir to the ruling Peacock Emperors of China, who was banished from the kingdom after trying to harness the power of gunpowder. But in attempting to avert the court soothsayer’s (voiced by Michelle Yeoh) prophecy that a black and white warrior would one day defeat him, the albino peacock exterminated a settlement of Giant Pandas — an atrocity that would soon come back to haunt the film’s bodacious protagonist. Now, Shen has returned, cannons and armed henchmen in tow, to finally reign supreme. And the question arises: Are bare fists and roundhouse kicks enough to stop the madbird’s creations? Can Po really defeat machines that “breathe fire and spit metal” and thus save Kung-Fu and all of China?
If vibrant visuals were the only thing required of an animation, Kung Fu Panda 2 would be a resounding success. Unfortunately, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger’s (as screenwriters, the duo has also collaborated on projects like Monsters vs. Aliens and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) return to the Valley of Peace is soured by cheap humor and uninteresting characters. The most noticeable is Po, who they (unintentionally) make an unlikeable character: A cartoonish bozo whose main purpose is to sound and act stupid. With a lead that lacks heart, one could only take so much contrived drama.
But the voice-acting is top-notch. Oldman, especially, adds color to his asinine character, making for a potent antagonist. Black, too, is a fitting choice for Po. He, however, is let down by subpar writing. Also worth mentioning is Jolie as Tigress, who adapts with her role — one that may turn out to be the most important aspect in the inevitable third chapter.
And director Jennifer Yu Nelson, in her directorial debut (she’d previously worked as the storyboard artist for the original installment, as well illustrator for 1998’s cult classic, Dark City) adds spice to a mundane story. One distinctive aspect of her direction is the variety of art styles — most notable in scenes involving Po’s backstory, where beautiful hand-drawn pieces fill the screen.
Studio execs must have been salivating over the potential profits of Kung Fu Panda 2; so much so that they outfitted the film with gimmicky 3D. Though the thick-rimmed nuisances (infamous for dimming down productions — literally) do little to the film’s fantastic visuals (fortunately), the superfluous technology can’t make poor scripting (and your lighter wallet) any less visible.