Kung Fu Panda 2: A Jolly Sequel, But Not an Equal

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DreamWorks / Paramount Pictures / AP

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 got kung fu!”

When the DreamWorks animation auteurs get a concept, they don’t let go. They’ve produced three sequels to Shrek (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. Today the studio brought Kung Fu Panda 2 to Cannes — a favorite venue for Jeffrey Katzenberg’s gang of cartoon crazies. DreamWorks has enjoyed honored spots at the Festival ever since it premiered the first Shrek here a decade ago. The original Kung Fu Panda was a highlight of the 2008 program, and arguably (if I’m doing the arguing) the company’s finest animated feature.

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Though KFP2 wasn’t invited into this year’s official program, Katzenberg corralled plenty of attention with a world-press screening of the film and appearances by some of its stars, including Black, Hoffman and Cannes’ longtime favorite glamour queen, Angelina Jolie (who provides the voice of Tigress). On Monday Jolie’s equally celebrated beau Brad Pitt, who lighted up the red carpet four years in a row — for Babel in 2006, Ocean’s Thirteen in 2007, as Jolie’s escort for Changeling in 2008 and for Inglourious Basterds in 2009 — will be the focus of all attention as the star of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

Since the movie’s ostensible theme is the search for inner peace — while pounding a world of hurt into bad guys — the panelists had to field questions on the subject. Jolie answered seriously (alluding to her children), Black genially and Hoffman memorably. “I don’t think inner peace exists at the Cannes Film Festival,” he quipped, then did a neat verbal backflip and added, “I have never had as much inner peace as I have at the moment, being in front of all these cameras and sitting next to Angelina. It doesn’t get anymore inner than that.” When quizzed about why he agreed to do the sequel, the 73-year-old actor replied, “At my age I have no short-term memory, so I can’t answer that.”

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KFP2 suffers no memory loss: it reprises much of the humor and shtick from the wonderful original. Less an extension than a retread, it’s in the quality range of the direct-to-video sequels to Aladdin and The Lion King. But as directed by Jennifer Yuh and written, like the first film, by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (with help from Guillermo Del Toro as “creative consultant,” aka script doctor), the new Panda has a bright palette, good vibes and enough vivacity to keep kids entertained and any accompanying adults awake.

Again the comedy relies on contrasting Po’s idiot bravado with the classic poise and power of the Furious Five, the quintet voiced by Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh and David Cross. 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 artillery but from Po’s search for his birth parents; you’ll recall that his 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 — KFP2 adds a family-values lesson Jolie’s adopted children could understand: that the one who raised you is your parent, even if you’re a panda and he’s a goose.

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The official selection so far is groaning with tales of strange kids: a college girl who becomes a somnolent sex object in a high-class bordello (Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty), a malignant boy on a murder rampage (Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin), an orphan who goes to the funerals of strangers and befriends a girl with terminal cancer (Gus Van Sant’s Restless). Soon we will dutifully report on all these films. But on the second day of school, even good students can be forgiven for playing hooky and taking in the DreamWorks pandamonium.