647 – Kung Fu Panda 2 (***1/2)

Image from avcesar.com.

You know how tough it can be to follow up a truly well-done movie, especially an animated one. I think Kung Fu Panda 2 surpasses the original, and it’s because it introduces some heretofore unseen layers of Po while combining some constrasting animation styles. It’s expertly directed by Jennifer Yuh and features the returning voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, and others.

In this installment, the Dragon Warrior panda Po (Black) is now teamed with the Furious Five, defending the town from evil doers. Exposition tells us of the banished son of the old king and queen, peacocks, who became prideful and menacing, and now he’s back to avenge his parents’ treatmenet of him and to take over China – and, by extension, the world. This son, Shen (Gary Oldman) plans to do this by using fireworks as weapons to usher out the era of kung fu. Meanwhile, Po comes to realize that he is not the natural son of his father, the goose (James Hong). Don’t ask why this is news.

During flashbacks, we get to see what tiny snippets of Po’s childhood emerge in his subconscious. He was placed by his mother in a pot of radishes and found by Mr. Ping (Hong). But why was he left there? What happened to his parents? Does Shen hold some of the answers? Probably. For – not a spoiler – it has been foretold that Shen will be defeated by a black-and-white warrior, by the local soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh). Shen knows this, Po does not.

So much to like about this movie. In those flashbacks, Yuh uses an entirely different style of animation, mostly black and white, to underline the intensity of the scenes. It’s reminiscent of the O-Ren Ishii’s flashback scenes in Kill Bill, come to think of it. Dazzling and detailed, these scenes are emotional and provactive. A little more than you’d expect from a kids’ film, but trust me when I say that the scenes are well done and by no means dwell on violence. They’re tense, but not truly intense.

Po himself takes on a role exuding more confidence and leadership. He’s not just a bumbling panda this time around. He is a little quicker, a little smarter, although just as unwieldy and ungainly. He lends the team both clear vision and witty repartee. Although he’s just as big as ever, he’s become more agile and more thoughtful, more inclined to listen to Master Shifu (Hoffman) and Tigress (Jolie) than before. This makes the action scenes – and there are some terrific ones – honestly compelling.

It’s nice to see everyone resuming their old roles, even if actors like David Cross, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu get short shrift (someone has to). It’s Po’s story. Importantly, I never felt as if this was an example of stunt casting, as each actor seems to be fitting for his or her role.

Be warned, though – the movie, like most animated films, does have its hankie moments. Here, they come at the very end, and they are as beautiful and touching as the rest of the film is charming and invigorating. The denouement offers a fitting coda for this masterful film.

Kung Fu Panda 2: ***1/2

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