DreamWorks Animation's surprise hit of 2008, Kung Fu Panda, opened with a spirited 2D hand drawn animation sequence revealing its hero Po's fantasies of becoming a member of the Furious Five and a master of kung fu. By the end credits, Po (voiced by Jack Black) had achieved both feats in a film of pure awesomeness.
The inevitable sequel also opens with a 2D animation sequence: a tale revealing the rise of the evil peacock, Shen. It also hints at the sad history from which Po (again voiced by Jack Black) descended, for Kung Fu Panda 2 is a much darker film than its predecessor and not just because of the deployment of 3D.
Shen (Gary Oldman), having been informed by a Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) that his rise to power would be halted by a panda, set in motion a Bible-like genocide of which Po was the only survivor; spirited away by his parents when just a baby and eventually adopted by noodle shop proprietor – and goose – Mr. Ping (the wonderful James Hong). That Po never questions his father's differing species is one of the running jokes of both films.
But in encountering Shen's coat of arms, worn by his wolf warriors, Po has flashes to his early childhood and parents, and his mission – to halt Shen's planned occupation of China by cannon fire; the peacock having discovered a use for gunpowder other than fireworks – is compromised by his desire to learn of his roots and why he was abandoned.
So where Kung Fu Panda was the story of Po's progress from zero to hero, the sequel is one of self discovery; far more concerned with the emotional journey of our portly panda than his kung fu prowess. There's nothing particularly wrong with that but the action sequences, which director Jennifer Yuh (graduating from head of story on the first Kung Fu Panda) must have envisioned as looking great in 3D, aren't the focus of the film nor are they helped by the murky palette the 3D produces.
Once again the Furious Five (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan and David Cross) are mere support, although with Jolie's Tigress is given slightly more screen time. Sadly, it seems, at the expense of Dustin Hoffman's Master Shifu, an absence Danny McBride (Wolf Boss) Dennis Haysbert (Master Ox) and even Jean Claude Van Damme (Master Croc) can't compensate for.
Kung Fu Panda 2 isn't a bad film nor a bad, if unnecessary, sequel. That it lacks the spark of surprise, that element of awesomeness which made the first such an entertainment, is predictable if no less lamentable, given sequels tend to fade with each installment. Here's hoping DreamWorks don't inflict the same fate on the panda as they did with a certain green ogre; as any Dragon Master knows, there's no shame in quitting while you're ahead.