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Kung Fu Panda 2

A Worthy Sequel

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

After pulling in nearly $500 million worldwide on Kung Fu Panda, DreamWorks Animation fast-tracked the first of several hoped-for sequels, Kung Fu Panda 2.

Po (voiced once again by Jack Black), a martial arts- and dumpling-obsessed Giant Panda, has fully embraced his role as the Dragon Warrior, the prophesized protector of the Valley of Peace. An expert at his own brand of unorthodox Kung Fu, Po willingly seeks out battle with interlopers, the Furious Five, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Viper (Lucy Liu), one-time Po doubters-turned-friends-and-allies, at Po’s considerable side.

Po’s mentor, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), sets Po on a new spiritual, personal journey, to find “inner peace,” a harder task than Po imagines, in large part because inner peace and the awesome Kung Fu imparts involves Po resolving one or two issues, including the perplexing question of his biological parents and their fates.

That clever bit of expanded backstory (Po’s the only Giant Panda we’ve met thus far) connects Po to Kung Fu Panda 2’s new, fearsome villain, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), an albino peacock and exiled prince to a nearby Chinese kingdom. He’s equal to or even better than the first film’s villain, Tai Lung (Ian McShane), for utter ruthlessness.

Shen leaves a path of destruction, up to and including mass murder (heavy, undoubtedly, for a family-oriented film), to avoid a (soon-to-be-self-fulfilling) prophecy that a black-and-white warrior will defeat him. All this comes courtesy of the royal court’s Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh). After his return from thirty years of exile, Shen builds a massive armory capable of neutralizing every form of Kung Fu, including, presumably Po’s unconventional style. With every Kung Fu master defeated, Shen’s armies will easily conquer China.

Po’s unsettled origin also impacts his relationship with his adopted father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), a fretful, noodle-obsessed goose fearful Po will abandon him if he learns the truth. It’s rare such a potentially heavy subject like adoption would work its way into an expensive, family-oriented, animated film, but first-time director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Kung Fu Panda’s head of story (she directed the first film’s dream sequence) and her screenwriting collaborators Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (with an assist by Charlie Kaufman) manage to inject the appropriate amount of subject-lightening humor on as-needed basis.

Inserted in 10-15 minute intervals, the 3D action scenes, each one a marvel of inventive fight choreography, also help to lighten the mood, not to mention moving Kung Fu Panda 2 rapidly toward the inevitable big battle between Po, the Furious Five (and one or two allies), and Lord Shen and his wolf army.

For all of Kung Fu Panda 2’s tightly structured plotting — aided, in part, by an 85-minute running time — it’s the superlative animation, the best produced by DreamWorks Animation, that unquestionably elevates the film above the studio’s generally mediocre output. Building on the first film, Kung Fu Panda 2 offers one visual pleasure after another, from the deeply textured backgrounds, lighting, characters, and, of course, the elaborate fight scenes.

For Po and Lord Shen’s intertwined backstories, revealed in flashback, Yuh Nelson reverts to the traditional, 2D animation style used in Kung Fu Panda’s memorable dream sequences. They’re even more spectacular the second (and third and fourth) time around.

With Po’s newly expanded backstory and a late, sequel-ready ending (apparently, three more sequels are in the planning stage), Po and the Furious Five’s future onscreen looks brighter than bright.