There’s lots of action but surprisingly little humor in this sequel to DreamWorks’ animated smash that blended martial arts knockabout with Winnie the Poo-inspired sweetness. “Kung Fu Panda 2” is ravishing to look at, but its by-the-numbers story isn’t enough to keep even a toddler occupied.
This installment is an amalgam of two narrative threads. One involves a battle by Po (voiced again by Jack Black), now feted as the Dragon Warrior, and his five comrades—Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross)—against an ambitious peacock named Shen (Gary Oldman), who has harnessed the power of fireworks for evil purposes, developing cannon-like weaponry with which he plans to conquer all China by “killing” kung-fu as a fighting method. The sextet go off to fight Shen and his wolf lieutenant (Danny McBride) after the villains have taken over the peaceful realm of Masters Ox (Dennis Haysbert), Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Rhino (Victor Garber).
But his pint-sized mentor Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells Po that in order to be victorious over Shen—as the Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) says he will be—he must achieve “inner peace.” And that will involve coming to terms with his true parentage—which in turn means redefining his relationship with his “father,” the noodle-selling goose Mr. Ping (James Hong).
Frankly, Mr. Ping is easily the best character in “Panda 2,” and it’s unfortunate that he’s relegated to appearances at the beginning and the end. Most of the picture is devoted to the kung-fu gang’s confrontations with Shen—a preening sort who spends most of his time spouting Snidely Whiplash dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in the mouth of a James Bond villain—and consists of hand-to-hand combat. The many fight sequences are certainly well animated, in widescreen format no less (and with the obligatory 3D adding punch). And the sight of great towers crashing to the ground and fireworks bombs rushing toward the audience are certainly eye-catching. But as such sequences accumulate they get more wearying for viewers than they apparently do for the participants. And though Po is celebrated as the great leader of the bunch, he’s also portrayed as sort of a stumblebum—a necessity of the plot, perhaps, but no less illogical for that.
In fact the character of Po is one of the least successful elements of the movie. Though he continues to consume great amounts of food, less is made this time around of it as the source of his fighting ability; he’s simply presented as the destined one. But he remains a basically uninteresting fellow, even though apart from Ping, the writers have assigned most of the humorous lines to him, presumably because Black provides his voice. They aren’t amusing enough to elicit much more than a mild chuckle, though.
As for the rest of the voice talent, they’re generally adequate but, in spite of the starry quality, less distinctive than one might expect. Hong is once again the standout, with Hoffman making the most of his brief opportunities as the miniature Yoda. The rest of the performers are perfectly adequate, but unexceptional.
Still, there are the visuals—and they are frequently extraordinary, from the opening prologue (done in the style of Chinese shadow puppets) through the fireworks explosions of the finale. It’s a pity that the story the makers have contrived isn’t really worthy of them.