It’s no surprise that the success of Kung Fu Panda (2008) has led to a sequel, but with such an open-and-close story, there was some question as to where we’d find Po on his second outing. DreamWorks Animation could have thrown our panda protagonist into any number of stock action premises, selling tons of merchandise at the expense of the plot. Instead, Kung Fu Panda 2 offers a touching narrative that tackles the issues of parenthood raised in the first film while furthering Po’s ascent to kung fu mastery.
The movie begins by telling the story of Lord Shen, an albino peacock and disgraced prince who many years ago overheard a prophecy that foretold his undoing by a black and white warrior. Desperate to change his fate, Shen went about destroying all the pandas in the land, but this act of cruelty horrified his parents, and they banished him from their kingdom. Now he has returned with a powerful weapon capable of stopping even the greatest of kung fu heroes.
Paternity is central to Kung Fu Panda 2, as threads left dangling in the first film tie back to Shen’s past crimes. Po’s relationship with his father expands beyond animated precedents allowing for a goose to father a panda and instead tackle the complexities of adoption and its effects on both father and child. Lord Shen’s background serves as a distortion of Po’s, as Shen struggles with what he perceives to be his own parental abandonment.
These concepts will likely sail well over the younger viewers’ heads, but there are enough visual splendors here to keep kids entertained while adults invest in the story. There are a number of novel action sequences, including one that puts the Furious Five in a Chinese lion dance costume and shows them “eating” a horde of enemy combatants one by one. 3D once again does more to detract than to enhance, but the fight scenes are so well choreographed that it’s hard to care too much.
Like Kung Fu Panda, number two rosters a handful of vocal acting standouts. The entire Furious Five returns, as does Dustin Hoffman in the role of Master Shifu. Notable additions include Danny McBride as Shen’s right-hand wolf captain, action star Jean-Claude Van Damme as Master Croc, and legendary villain actor Gary Oldman, who instills Lord Shen’s brand of evil with a subtle hurt that underscores his megalomania and inspires a kernel of pity in the viewer.
Kung Fu Panda 2 doesn’t manage to top its predecessor, but its balance of striking animated action and a mature storyline make it much more than your average sequel.