By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
The original “Kung Fu Panda,” an animated film from 2008, gave us the enchanting, if unlikely, premise of an overfed giant panda (voiced by Jack Black) who struggles to master kung fu.
The sequel, “Kung Fu Panda 2,” finds the panda, Po (again voiced by Jack Black), already a kung fu master. But he faces a new menace from Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman), a power-hungry albino peacock who dreams of conquering China. Lord Shen has discovered the secret of gunpowder, and his huge cannons threaten to render kung fu obsolete.
As before, Po takes spiritual advice from his own master, a red panda named Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). However, Shifu plays a much smaller role in this film. He dispenses spiritual advice, sends Po to fight Lord Shen, and then disappears for much of the film.
The Furious Five martial arts team accompanies Po on his mission. The team pulls the headstrong panda out of serious trouble many times.
The film doesn’t always take full advantage of its Asian stars. As before, the amazing Jackie Chan plays the Furious Five’s monkey. In the original “Kung Fu Panda,” he only had three or four lines. Here, he gets seven or eight. But this still feels like a serious waste of his personality, and a snub to his decades-long history in martial arts film.
Lucy Liu as the viper snake gets a bit more respect, and a few more lines. As a new character, called the Soothsayer, Michelle Yeoh brings implacable calmness to counteract Master Shen’s frequent rages.
James Hong, whose credits include “Big Trouble In Little China” and frequent guest appearances on the old “Kung Fu” television series, repeats his role as the goose, Mr. Ping, Po’s father. His warmth, humor, and sadness add up to one of the film’s finest performances.
If you’re wondering to yourself how a goose can hatch out a panda, you are not alone. This disparity, never addressed in the first film, becomes an important plot point in the second.
To defeat Lord Shen, Po must learn the dark secrets about where he came from. His past threatens to overwhelm him. He must call on his inner strength and inner peace to survive. He will also need the Furious Five more than ever.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson, the director of “Kung Fu Panda 2,” has a background in illustration and comic books. This shows in the film’s elaborate design plans. The present tense, ancient history, and Po’s visions showcase three different looks, each one elaborately envisioned and beautifully executed.
The 3-D process also adds to the thrills, if not the storytelling. Knives, fangs, feathers, noses, and Po’s often-contorted face fill the screen and, seemingly, the first few rows of the theater, as action sequence follows action sequence.
The movie maintains a rapid and exciting pace, but doesn’t neglect the deeper reaches of Po’s backstory. Moment for moment, it’s even better than the first installment. A surprise at the end lets us know that a future “Panda” lies in wait. ♦
“Kung Fu Panda 2” opens Thursday, May 26, in Seattle. Check local listings for theaters, prices, and showtimes.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.