“Kung Fu Panda 2,” written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, directed by Jennifer Yuh, 90 minutes, rated PG.
The key to “Kung Fu Panda,” much like the art of kung fu itself, is timing. Comedic timing, to be exact. Knowing when and where to pause, interrupt or unexpectedly ease the audience’s tension helped the first “Panda” find its identity among a crowded field of other, less original animated works.
“Kung Fu Panda 2” carries on that tradition, with Jack Black returning to voice the newly-appointed Dragon Warrior Po, the most lovable loser of all.
The sequel explores the panda’s origins, when, during a fight with a marauding wolf, the symbol on the thief’s uniform triggers a flashback in Po, to when he was a baby panda. Suddenly, Po has to face the truth that Mr. Ping – a noodle-loving swan goose – is his adoptive father, starting the panda on a journey of self discovery.
His fate, as we find out in an introduction paying homage to puppetry, is intertwined with Lord Shen’s (voiced by Gary Oldman), a vindictive albino peacock who felt neglected by his parents as a child.
Meanwhile, the end of kung fu nears in the shape of a firearm. Shen, amassing all of the metal his thugs can muster, has developed a cannon that is powerful enough to take out any kung fu master, and with these weapons of mass destruction, he is aiming to seize control over all of China.
But Po and the Furious Five have a different plan.
The animation, as we became accustomed to in the first installment, is made up of brilliant splashes of Chinese-infused computer-generated images. The establishing shots are breathtaking, and audiences will find themselves lost in the setting when their attention isn’t fully transfixed on the flowing fight scenes.
But that’s only half of the formula that makes “Kung Fu Panda” so effective. The other half, of course, is the humor, and there’s no shortage of that here. There are laugh-out-loud scenes sprinkled in throughout “Panda 2,” always hitting the audience at just the right moments.
Some, however, may find “Kung Fu Panda 2” to be a darker turn for the series in its exploration of heavier themes, but it doesn’t even compare to “Toy Story 3’s” dramatic about-face. No matter how far “Panda 2” goes (peril, tough talks, violence, etc.), it never loses sight of its childishness, and there’s still room for that in animation.
“Kung Fu Panda 2” is everything you could ask for from a sequel. It takes what the original did well, and amplifies its awesomness. Depending on how the rest of the summer plays out, it just might remain one of my favorites of the season.