While it doesn't offer a very compelling story and may actually be too serious for young kids—in some spots, it's rather grave—Kung Fu Panda 2 will probably be a runaway success this summer.
In large part, that's due to being in the catbird seat: Panda is the first cartoon of the blockbuster season, a full month before the next animated flick, Cars 2, rolls into theaters.
Still, it is curious why this movie—like the latest Pirates of the Caribbean sequel—struggles to have fun when the original provides a perfectly good blueprint.
In the first Kung Fu Panda three years ago, the filmmakers made Jack Black somewhat likable, which is an increasingly difficult challenge, given that all of his mainstream performances are nearly identical. As Po, the clumsy, lazy panda bear who has nevertheless been chosen as "The Dragon Warrior," Black had better comedic material to work with than he normally does, and he was supported by a very good voice cast, highlighted by Angelina Jolie and Dustin Hoffman.
The second time around, Master Shifu (Hoffman), along with Tigress (Jolie) and the rest of the Furious Five, are mostly relegated to cameos. Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan and David Cross—who round out Jolie's Furious five as animal practitioners of kung fu—might have 15 lines between them in the sequel, so a lot more of the success or failure rests on Jack Black's shoulders here.
For his part, Black is fine. There are fewer laughs, which are more or less replaced by a storyline in which Po discovers his true identity. The message for kids that comes through in the subplot is that no matter where you started, you have the choice to be whoever you want to be. You can't miss it; it's repeated a couple of times.
There are two strengths in the sequel, though, that make it worthwhile. The first is a terrific mixture of animation styles and color. The first film also did well in these areas, but from the opening scene in Kung Fu Panda 2, and continuing throughout, a dream sequence or flashback always has a very distinct look. It really makes the movie stand out as more than just a predictable money grab; there's some real artistry in these sequences.
Beyond those standalone moments, the style is ratcheted up significantly for scenes involving the villain, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). Shen is a black, white and red peacock, and Shen's entire universe has that same look: red skies and explosions, black and white fortresses. It's all very cool.
The second strength is Lord Shen himself, portrayed masterfully by Oldman. Conniving, heartless and seemingly unstoppable, Shen threatens the very existence of kung fu by inventing firearms. The peacock unleashes cannons on Po and the Furious Five, as well as unsuspecting Chinese villages. If kids are disappointed that some of their favorite characters from the first movie aren't in full force in the follow-up, at least they'll have horrible nightmares about the villain for a while.
Maybe that's taking it a bit too far, but Shen is an evil character; he's drawn that way. He's emotionless, and he wants to kill entire villages for his own advancement. To balance that out for the very young target demographic, perhaps the filmmakers could have tabled the yarn about Po's family tree until the inevitable next installment and just livened up the comedy where they could.
Kung Fu Panda 2 is not a bad movie, and it's certainly not a bad sequel. Where it goes might be a little unexpected, and it may sour audience members who would have instinctively followed the series as long as it stayed on course. At least this film tries to do something a little bit different, although it probably still could have made its point and not potentially sacrificed some of its built-in audience.