The success, both critical and popular, of 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda” broke the CGI chokehold that Pixar had placed on its competitors. Besides DreamWorks’ “Shrek,” “Kung Fu Panda” has been one of very few non-Pixar films to effectively blend both the visual marvel of computer generation with a smart script and substantive characters. Po, a lovable but lazy panda, became the unlikely protagonist of a story that follows a very traditional hero’s journey plot. He must overcome obstacles of physical feats, fearsome foes and the potential indigestion that results from eating too much of his beloved noodles and dumplings. And in the sequel, “Kung Fu Panda 2,” much of this noodle-based humor returns along with Po and his Kung Fu friends, but set amongst a darker and more grave set of stakes.
As Po emerged as the hero in the first film, the sequel takes the hero mythology a step further by delving into the pudgy panda’s mysterious origin story. If it ever seemed odd that Po’s father was a goose in the first film, this curious factor becomes the impetus for a journey fueled by soul-searching and the menacing machinations of a new, crueler villain: the duplicitous peacock, Lord Shen (voiced by the always magnificent Gary Oldman).
You see, long before Po the Panda achieved the coveted status of Dragon Warrior, the peacocks ruled the land. But, one day, not unlike Sophocles’ “Oedipus,” a sage soothsayer predicted that the their tenure as tyrannical leaders would be usurped by a warrior, of black and white pigment. With equal parts Greek myth and Kung Fu movie homage, Po and the rest of the furious five warriors set out to destroy the increasing threat of Shen, as he rapes and pillages his way through their peaceful countryside.
And if this plot of prophesy, villain and hero seems hackneyed, it’s because it is. Even though the first film was filled with the tried and true themes of overcoming hardships and believing in yourself, its subtle and off-beat humor provided a refreshing take on the already tired series of animal-themed animated films. Unfortunately, the sequel takes the colorful and vibrant charm of the first and reduces it to a story that is as black and white as the movie’s panda protagonist while simultaneously removing much of the humor.
In fact, there are surprisingly few jokes in “Kung Fu Panda 2.” Beside your basic, obese panda punch-lines, the majority of the film consists in overly drawn-out fight scenes which would easily fatigue any viewer, young or old. Every five minutes, a new action sequence breaks out and though each of them are rendered with a masterful skill, they still feel as weary as the plot feels cliched. The only shining light in an otherwise drab endeavor is the few minutes of flashback we receive surrounding Po’s tragic past. Shown in a style reminiscent of traditional cell animation, the scenes add some much-needed depth to a set of fairly stale characters. Also, these scenes have super-cute moments with Po as a baby panda which makes at least part of the film above adequate.
But however adorable a portly panda may be, “Kung Fu Panda 2” is largely forgettable. At only 95 minutes, it continues to indulge in its Greek influences by feeling like a marathon. The plot drags and because so much of it is devoted to action scenes, though beautifully animated action scenes, any attempt at character depth suffers. Although there are moments of brief laughter (those who know the violent mating rituals of praying mantises will get a few laughs), “Kung Fu Panda 2” is just another addition to the sad streak of sequels that try to capitalize off their predecessor but fail. Lucky for us, the last scene of this movie promises the streak will continue on … and on …. and on ….
Jessica Pena is the assistant arts editor.