The evil Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman) has just introduced gunpowder to China and plans to aim it at the country’s greatest martial artists, a group that implausibly includes a pudgy panda bear named Po (Jack Black). Po’s teacher Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) considers this a revolting development; as he observes mournfully, “This could be the end of kung fu.” And the panda, a late bloomer in the discipline, whines, “But I just gotkung fu!”
When the DreamWorks animation auteurs get a concept, they don’t let go. Any hit DreamWorks cartoon serves as a product launch for as long a line of sequels as the public will pay to see. They’ve produced four films in the Shrek series (plus a Puss in Boots spin-off due this November); they’re preparing a third Madagascar for next June and have begin work on a followup to How to Train Your Dragon for 2014. Now they’ve manufactured a 3-D sequel to Kung Fu Panda, the 2008 comedy that is arguably (if I’m doing the arguing) the company’s finest animated feature.
KFP2 reprises much of the humor and shtick from the wonderful original. Less an extension than a retread, this Panda Lite hovers in the quality range of Disney’s direct-to-video sequels to Aladdin and The Lion King — except that ballooning budgets have forced these modest second chapters out of the DVD bins and into theaters, to earn back the extravagant costs. But as directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson (one of the few women vouchsafed the solo direction of a big-budget animated film) and written, like the first film, by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, the new Panda has a bright palette, an amiable vibe and enough vivacity to keep kids entertained and any accompanying moms from bolting for Bridesmaids.
Again the comedy relies on contrasting Po’s idiot bravado with the classic poise and power of the Furious Five, the quintet voiced by Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh and David Cross. This time, though, the Five don’t get to parade their group coordination, as they did in the original, where they echoed the fantastic foot and fist work of the Five Venoms from Chang Cheh’s Hong Kong martial-arts classics of the late ’70s. Only Jolie’s Tigress gets to register as a character; the other four, given just a few lines each, are reduced to backup performers — Pips to her Gladys Knight. That wastes the time and talents of some fine stars and deprives KFP2of the communal camaraderie of these experts in kick-ass.
By now Po has learned enough about the Tao of kung fu that, when panic crosses his mind, he says, “I’m not freakin’ out. I’m freakin’ in.” The major freak-in comes not from Lord Shen’s cannon but from Po’s Luke Skywalkery search for his birth parents. You’ll recall that his putative father, the noodle-shop owner Mr. Ping (James Hong), is of an entirely different species. To the first film’s moral — that you are who you have become — KFP2adds a family-values lesson that Jolie’s adopted children could understand: The one who raised you is your parent, even if you’re a panda and he’s a goose.
Kung-fu kudos to animator Rudolphe Guenoden for the imaginative action choreography and, just for being there, to Guillermo Del Toro (director of Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy films), who served as “creative consultant” They surely helped make the film watchable; but the lingering impression is of a perfunctory sequel — one made not to enrich the story or characters but because the first one made a bundle. It’s called franchising, folks, and a “new” KFP has all the nourishment of another batch of KFC.