If there’s one family movie franchise I wouldn’t mind seeing more of it’s the epic tale of Po the Kung Fu Panda and his merry band of fighting creature friends, the Furious Five. This sequel to the 2008 hit resurrects and expands upon the original’s blend of creatively filmed action, appealingly broad comedy and classic Chinese motifs interspersed with that age-old animation standard: cute animals.
This time, Po the Dragon Warrior (Jack Black) and his team are called upon to protect China from Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock with a devious plan to right a past wrong and heavy machinery to back it up. The kung fu masters must face immense obstacles, not the least of which is Po’s sudden, shocking realization that his noodle-shop owning goose father (James Hong) isn’t his biological paterfamilias.
Filmmaker Jennifer Yuh and her team of animators, working from a screenplay by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, imbue the characters’ quest to stop Lord Shen with a tricky, successfully mastered balance of serious drama and vaudevillian slapstick. It’s not easy to vacillate between heavy identity confusion and lighthearted adventure and make both elements resonate, especially in a movie centered on a panda and his animal friends.
Po’s existential crisis is rendered with sincerity — Dragon Warrior or not, he’s weighed down by the burden of being the only panda around. In battling Lord Shen he comes face-to-face with a suppressed past trauma and his struggle with it (evoked in part through anime-style illustrations) adds an empathetic edge to the action-driven proceedings. Of course it helps that Black is singularly sympathetic in this role, as the script offers no room for his characteristic vocal digressions and faux-rocker intonations. Instead of those unnerving Black motifs, the actor offers an unrelenting regular-guy sweetness that makes it impossible not to care for the big, bumbling bear, even as he stumbles about and causes problems.
Soaring high-angled camerawork, a relentlessly quick pace and scenes that are choreographed with fluid artistry collectively imbue the film with an overarching fun sensibility. Good-natured humor abounds and the filmmakers wholly resist the urge to dumb it down by pandering to younger audience members.
The flick might feature a cast of animals, but it’s made in the classic cinematic serial tradition, and it regards the elaborate ancient world being evoked with a palpable sense of wonder. This is a mystical environment of oversized temples, magic lanterns, calligraphy, wise kung fu masters and quests for inner piece.
Lord Shen’s weaponry, elaborate and powerful, is no laughing matter. The filmmakers offer a visceral, tangible threat within a narrative predicated on the sensation of “awww”-inspiring animals practicing martial arts. That’s no easy feat.
The Upside: This is a fun movie that successfully alternates between lighter and heavier moments.
The Downside: I guess there’s a limit on the potential for greatness in a sequel to a movie about a kung fu master panda.
On the Side: The movie is, of course, in 3D. Shockingly, the dim, unnecessary rip-off of a format doesn’t ruin it.