Monkey, the voice of Jackie Chan; Crane, the voice of David Cross; Po, the… (Courtesy of DreamWorks…)
Don't let the plush paunch, gurgling tummy or the occasional comic aside fool you -- there's a restless dragon warrior just itching to break some heads in "Kung Fu Panda 2." Po, still kicking and snacking and channeling Jack Black, believes he's the panda to do it. Master Shifu, who carries within him the wisdom of the ages and Dustin Hoffman's pipes, is not so sure.
All of which makes for a lot of tension and boundary pushing in this frothy brothy, noodle-and-action-packed second chapter of the 2008 animated hit, "Kung Fu Panda," a rich vision of ancient China with warlords, Zen masters, old grudges and just a dash of modern day awesome. This is one raucous animal kingdom, no humans allowed.
The story, written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, is pretty standard childhood fare -- believe in yourself, family is what you make it, watch out for peacocks. It's the 3-D animation, under the spell of director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, that's such a surprise. Not that a woman is flying solo on a major animated project -- although that is nearly as rare as the Hope diamond -- rather that this is the first movie in a long time that you won't mind paying for the glasses because what's on the screen is multidimensional magic.
When we last saw Po, he was still honing all the right moves. As "Panda 2" opens, he's gotten a lot better. The rest of the class of 2008 is back too, that would be the Furious Five, which sadly does not include Vin Diesel, but does feature a fearsome bunch in Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross).
Soon word comes to the Valley of Peace telling of the rise of Lord Shen, Gary Oldman as a peacock whose mommy and daddy issues have his feathers in a twist. He has developed weapons so brutal, cannons so incredible that it may spell the end of kung fu, to say nothing of an entire city, country and culture. This is one bad dude.
Nelson, who has done major time in the animation trenches, including as head of story for "Kung Fu Panda," seems like an old pro despite "P2" being her first time in the director's chair. That she grew up as much a fan of martial arts as animation can be felt everywhere, in elaborately choreographed fighting sequences à la "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and in small touches -- the way in which Lord Shen turns his peacock feathers into lethal weapons, especially powerful when combined with Oldman's ability to sound so deadly. How does he do it?
There is much less of the comic book sketching-voice-over combo that was used liberally in the first "Panda" to fill in the blanks. And that is a good thing. For "Panda 2" is not just wall-to-wall animation, it is artistry of the highest order. I don't know whether it's the technology that's changed, or that the artists, most of whom worked on the first, have grown, but there is a striking new level of emotion in the characters themselves, particularly their eyes, that does much to, well, animate the film.
That expressiveness combined with the talented voice cast brings a nuance, a sense of reality that is hard to achieve in animation. You feel it especially in the quiet moments, though there are not too many of those. It's as if the filmmakers fear they will lose the audience if they slow down and find that inner peace that Master Shifu is always preaching about, and that Po's sweet silly goose of a dad, Mr. Ping (James Hong) just comes by naturally, even when Po figures out Ping may not be his birth pa.
The look itself is a visual mash-up that evokes a nostalgia for both fairy tales and kung-fu fighting. Animation styles dip into genres as diverse as Grimm, animé and Saturday morning cartoons, yet somehow it mostly works. The big action pieces, particularly the final face-off, are masterful both for their cleverness in bringing down the house and the detail jammed into every frame. Even composers Hans Zimmer, who's scored a zillion movies, and John Powell seem to be having more fun than usual.
Now to the 3-D. What makes it appealing in "Panda 2" is how deeply embedded it is within the film. It's not just the random fireball being hurled right at us, but that the entire world of Po feels as if it has been carved out of space, rather than sketched out on a page.
There is a price to be paid for the visual razzle-dazzle -- wonderful complexity against a simple story that could have benefited from some bulking up (layered, not longer). Still with Black shelving his usual snark for Po's self-deprecating charm, Jolie making Tigress terrifyingly overqualified for everything as only she can do, Rogen's Mantis showing the actor's growing facility for voicing animation and Hoffman, as ever, the guru everyone wants, they've brought this warrior's tale to kicking, spinning, bone-crunching, feather-flying life.
And the fireworks are awesome.
'Kung Fu Panda 2'
MPAA rating: PG for sequences of martial arts action and mild violence
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: In general release