Jennifer Yuh’s Kung Fu Panda 2 is a very good sequel to the wonderful 2008 movie. The movie takes the cheeky elements of the first movie, which was both a stylistic success, and a surprisingly earnest animated movie that was something of a repudiation of the arch-preciousness of the downward spiral of Shrek. The first movie, which told the story of Po (the Panda in question) and his unlikely rise to top of the Kung Fu hero ladder (a ladder that would undoubtedly break under his ample frame if it were more than merely symbolic), had a sense of humor but a lovely color palette and look which evoked Eastern images and martial arts of yore quite faithfully, and animated action sequences which were surprisingly exciting and involving. This sequel uses the movie as a starting point, but develops into another direction – plundering hero lore and telling the archetypal story of the hero coming to grips with his past.
The past for Po of course is where did he come from. When one noticed who his dad was in the first movie, a Muppet Show level of suspension of disbelief about cross species reproduction was necessary – but here the movie does explain it. As it turns out (stop the presses!) Po’s parents had to leave him. Po’s search for his past coincides with the further development of his relationships with the other heroes, including some sympathy from the previously icy Tigress which opens up more inter-species liberalism maybe. At the same time, a new enemy emerges in the form of a peacock voiced by that great villain of our times, Gary Oldman. It does not take a ton of rocket science to figure out where the story is going, but how it gets there is a lot of fun. The movie does not short change the writing of the characters, and the voice performances are first rate. Indeed, Jack Black (as Po) and Dustin Hoffman (as Chifu, the sensei) have terrific comic timing, and Black makes Po loveable without becoming saccharine or pathetic.
The other pleasure is the visual look. The movie continues in its carnival of colors and images, switching between CGI and 2-D to show flashbacks vs now. The action sequences are thrilling. However, much of this was lost on me since I paid the extra to see it in 3-D. I can say with some certainty that the 3-D adds nothing. Sure there are some fun with the action sequences, but the movie does not employ the space particularly deftly. In other words, there is no reason for this to be 3-D plotwise – it does not buy anything. Instead with the glasses on, we get a murky palette where the bold colors are not realized. It is amazing that the cheaper lame-o technology could provide a superior viewing experience, but it has to be so. Moreover with the glasses they gave us, the lenses are much too small so the entire field of vision is not covered. The edges of the frame are too apparent, and it is a constant distraction. Through the glasses it is easy to glean that this is a good movie, but to get the full visceral joy, it is hard not to recommend the boring ol’ normal way.