As someone said to me before I saw this movie – once Po becomes supreme Kung Fu master and conquers the world, where could the story possibly go from there?
The first Kung Fu Panda surprised and delighted with the concept of a fat boy (Po, voiced by Jack Black) who envies kung fu heroes, and who really learns to master the art of athleticism and power. The sequel struggles mightily with the problem of what dramatic conflict to challenge the master with from here. In fact, it needs to spend the first two thirds laboriously undercutting everything that the first movie built up, by introducing a second major character flaw (the first, obviously, is that pandas would rather eat than fight). But now that this panda is the kung fu hero of the town, we find out that he has another problem he is struggling with – he doesn’t know who he is. That is, he’s been adopted, and there is a terrible repressed memory about his early childhood that is blocking him from his full powers at the time of most need. In order to overcome that repressed memory, he needs to master “inner peace.”
This puts the sequel now squarely in the realm of pop psychology, and it loses much because of it. Not only is the psycho-pop struggle of Po’s childhood signaled about fifteen moves back from when it’s necessary, it’s endlessly repeated just in case it hadn’t sunk in the first fourteen times.
Meanwhile we need a new super villain to fight. This one is a Peacock, and he’s invented gun powder. This gives him a technological advantage (or so it would seem) over the older technology of kung fu. One could go in so many directions with this parable of an arms race, but in the end, the movie chooses just one: how will Po overcome his childhood angst to use Kung Fu to defeat the Peacock’s weapons? Boring, I know, and a disappointment for a film series whose first episode surprised us with the humor in the dumpling-loving panda’s unlikely situation. For this reason, this film lacks the first’s wit and for long stretches is even a bit of a slog.
However, taking its inspiration from other fabulously inked children’s series – one thinks of the title sequences of Lemmony Snicket or Wall-E – the animation and art direction here rises above the story, and keeps this uninspired sequel afloat. To illustrate flashbacks, the art takes on a flat, two-dimensional black and white, stop-time quality that is really quite fascinating. Combined with the score, this is once again a case of talented below-the-line staff keeping a studio-forumula production from sinking into irrelevance. Even if adult attentions may flag, there’s enough visual popcorn flashing by on screen to keep the kids fascinated for two hours.
Once the third-act turn comes – and the panda realizes the source of his angst and decides to take action – the story is able to get past the laborious set-up and finally kick into gear. Once that happens, the old magic of the first film finally returns: the characters are moving forward with purpose again. This is where this movie should have started (and just dispensed with the crippling mystery). Po still has to figure out how to overcome the technological advantage of his adversary, but this is the essence of this series charm: we like to see this plush-size panda on purposeful action to overcome stunningly overwhelming odds.
We get 1/3rd a film here then for the price of a whole one. It feels a bit of a rip off. If the trend continues with the next film, it won’t even be worth the price of the rental.