“Kung Fu” Chops Originality for Animation

This may come as a great surprise to many of you, but Mr. Ping — goose and noodle shop owner — is not the biological father of kung fu panda Po Ping (voiced by Jack Black).

This shocker is the first revelation in the second film of a franchise the producers hope will span into six movies; using this logic, the sequel follows the typical “hero’s journey” narrative to a tee.

Po, having proven himself worthy to be a Dragon Warrior, now needs to be taken down a notch by battling a new bad guy (conniving peacock Lord Shen, voiced by Gary Oldman), finding “inner peace,” discovering a sobering backstory and having just enough really uncomfortable sexual tension with Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie) to develop in films to come. But while the movie’s plot may be cliché to the point that it sometimes feels like a “Lion King” remake for the Asian demographic, the production makes for dazzling fight scenes, vivid colors and 3-D done right.

The story begins with the megalomaniac Shen (Gary Oldman) threatening to take China by force with the power of his kung fu-repelling, fire-breathing weapon of mass destruction (Spoiler alert: it’s a cannon). Po sets out with the Furious Five (Tigress, Viper, Monkey, Mantis, Crane) to save everybody’s favorite ancient civilization, but it turns out that he has a unique relationship with Shen, a relationship you can probably guess if you’ve ever read Harry Potter. Between trying to boil rice in his stomach and facing his old enemy (stairs), Po struggles with his identity, family and destiny.

There are funny lines interspersed with the sap; Mr. Ping has the best jokes, though they usually revolve around food sales, and the archetypal “wise soothsayer” character (a goat voiced by Michelle Yeoh) has more of a hint of smartass to her predictions. Even Shen is ridiculous as he practices just how he’ll pose when confronting Po, and there’s no end of poking fun at Po’s appetite and ungainliness. But, unlike the previous film, backstory and visuals are the focus, not comedy. And while we learn plenty about Po’s sob story, the other supposed main characters — the Furious Five — remain background players without personalities, save for the aforementioned Tigress, who just does a lot of awkward hugging with Po.

But what the movie lacks in plot originality, it makes up for with its visuals and its use of 3-D that brings the set into sharp relief. Even the strategic lack of this fancy new feature adds to the visual charm: The first few minutes of the movie tell Shen’s story with shadow puppets, and Po’s flashbacks are done in a flat, airy palette of washed-out watercolors and simple lines.

The action scenes pop with flame balls flashing at dizzy speeds, temples crashing to the ground and wolves, birds and Po all flying through the air at different times. Fiery horizons and towering buildings add grandeur to the representation of ancient China, while a scene in a remote, rural village has bamboo huts and green forests shrouded in fog. Po struggles, Mufasa-style, not to fall off a dangerous precipice, but there’s also a martial arts sequence in which a single, translucent orb of water flows down Po’s more-than-ample flesh and onto a single leaf. It’s the showy scenes and the attention to detail that buoy the film’s mediocre storyline and ensure that, while “Kung Fu Panda 2” may seem like filler to build up for grander things, every minute is easy on the eyes. (B)

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