Following on from the enjoyable 2008 original, Kung Fu Panda 2 (let’s call it KFP2) follows the traditional sequel equation of dishing up more of the same while ladling on heaps of the spectacular action (of course served with a steaming bowl of 3D sauce). However in the process KFP2 seems to have lost much of the unique flavour of the first film.
A few things have changed, we get a new villain to replace the vanquished snow leopard Tai Lung, in the shape of conceited aristocratic peacock Lord Shen (voiced with delicious James Mason-esque villainy by Oldman). An indigestible wodge of exposition sets up the plot: Lord Shen is destined to be a city lord, but receives a prophecy from a soothsayer that a Panda will defeat his clan. Enraged, he orders his wolf-thing minions to attack and kill the Pandas. When Shen’s parents find out what he has done they banish him from the kingdom. However an infant Panda was spared, and has course grown (and boy has he) into Po (Black). Phew, it has to be said that this is a lot of knowledge to drop on a young audience, you get me? In fact some of the adults were struggling (okay I was struggling) to process the set up.
Anyway, Po is now the Dragon Warrior, defending the Valley of Peace with the aid of the Furious Five (Tigress, Mantis, Monkey and Viper) and his diminutive kung fu Master Shifu. Whilst defending a village from wolfish raiders intent on stealing metal, Po is distracted by a sigil on the chief bandit’s armour, and has a vision of his true parents and the massacre described above (child minders, do not worry, this is shown off screen). This creates conflict with his “father” Mr. Ping, a goose and noodle-meister. While it may be obvious to everyone else that a panda and a goose are not genetically related, the news is shocking to Po. Before such domestic matters can be worked out, news reaches Master Shifu that Kung Fu Master Thundering Rhino, the protector of the city from the prologue, has been killed by a mysterious new weapon. Po and the Furious Five are sent to investigate. They find that Lord Shen has returned, his minions have been stealing metal to smelt into cannons. Shen plans to use the new technology of firearms to destroy Kung Fu and conquer China.
While KFP2 looks great, with wonderful animation (can there possibly be any more advances in digital fur?) a great voice cast and a rousing score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell, something is missing here. The film is so keen to rocket from one spectacular action sequence to the next (each increasing in spectacle and scale) that character work gets squeezed out. While the Furious Five were underused in the original film, here they have even less to do. Only Jolie’s Tigress and Rogan’s Mantis are given any significant lines (and Rogan does the same PG-friendly Preying Mantis sex gag twice), Chan’s Monkey and especially Lucy Lui’s Viper get given nothing to do. Hoffmin’s role as Master Shifu is truncated as well. New voice cast stars like Van Damme (as a King Fu Crocodile) and Danny McBride (as a villainous henchman) make so little impression I was scratching my head when their names appeared in the credits. What this means is yet more of Black doing his thang (which we all can’t get enough of) and plenty of Oldman (which is fine, he steals the show among the voice cast).
Also downplayed are the first film’s wonderful martial arts scenes. The original movie featured many amusing anthropomorphic takes on martial arts training scenes – familiar from such classics as Iron Monkey (if you haven’t seen it please do, it’s possibly the most fun kung fu film ever) and The Karate Kid, to name but two. Now Po is the Dragon Warrior and a martial arts master so no training required. After an opening fight scene, the film moves more into action mode and loses the unique wuxia personality which endeared the original to martial arts obsessed kids of all ages. It’s also notable that the film is not all that funny. Our screening was full of kids, and while they seemed to be enjoying the film, they weren’t exactly rolling in the aisles. Since the release of the first Panda, its claim to the crown of the best non-Pixar, CGI animated action-adventure film was taken by the excellent How To Train Your Dragon, KFP2 fails to win it back.
In the final analysis KFP2 feels just a little bit tired. Perhaps not as tired as its hero after a confrontation with “mortal enemy” stairs, but at least a little out of puff. It is still well put together, with excellent (if gimmicky) 3D, and should keep kids occupied without driving accompanying parents to despair. Unfortunately the lack of rich characters and genuine wit in the story mean that the final dish is rather bland, like a block of ungarnished tofu.