May 27, 2011 in Features

‘Panda 2’ touchy-feely, but with a kick

Colin Covert Minneapolis Star Tribune

Huggable Po gets all touchy-feely in “Kung Fu Panda 2,” a sturdy sequel to the 2008 blockbuster.

This entry aims to expand the series both in storytelling terms and visually. It introduces emotionally complex issues, and literally adds new scope via 3-D.

In each case, the payoff is impressive.

The movie opens with a ravishing replica of traditional Chinese shadow puppet plays. It introduces the movie’s new villain, a militarist peacock named Lord Shen, who aims to conquer China by exterminating kung fu.

Po, a giant panda who transformed himself from a dumpling-shaped layabout to a mighty martial arts master, leads his Furious Five posse against Lord Shen’s “unstoppable” new weapon.

But pride may be his undoing unless he can find spiritual harmony as his mentor Master Shifu instructs.

The vocal cast is fine, with Jack Black alternately laconic and lunatic as Po and Gary Oldman all silken menace as Lord Shen, whose claws and tail feathers double as rapiers.

Angelina Jolie’s strong, protective Master Tigress moves to the forefront of Po’s team as Po’s surrogate Tiger Mother, embodying the strict Chinese parenting that the immature hero still needs.

Her colleagues Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross and Lucy Liu get about two lines apiece. But that’s fine because it gives more room to Michelle Yeoh as a soothsaying mountain goat who nervously nibbles at her clients’ robes when not dispensing wisdom, and James Hong as Mr. Ping, Po’s proud papa.

The film’s strong suit, its richly textured visuals, will leave you breathless. The backgrounds are photorealistic landscapes of National Geographic magnificence, the interiors are fever dreams of Ming Dynasty splendor, and the character animation, with complex but extremely smooth kung fu choreography, simply flows.

Fireworks are a key element of the story, and the sheer surfeit of visual delights – more than the eye can absorb in any one moment – mirrors the climax of a fireworks display.

There’s dizzy slapstick wit to the fighting. In one scene Po and friends hide in a street-dance dragon that seemingly gobbles up Lord Shen’s wolf henchmen and expels them out the other end.

But there’s big-scale drama when it’s called for. A climactic naval battle puts “Pirates of the Caribbean” to shame as it whittles down an armada of long ships to the consistency of chopsticks.

And the decision to add snatches of serious soul-searching to the original recipe of belly laughs and surging action yields a fine dividend.

The original left you with a genial sense of good cheer if you are an adult, and sheer exuberance if you were a child. This one will give most spectators their weekly dose of escapism while fleshing out a character that could have remained formulaic.

There’s an intimidating number of moving parts in a project such as this, and director Jennifer Yuh keeps it all running smoothly.

The effort must have been considerable. The result is worth it.

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