Hero panda Dragon Warrior Po (Black) begins a new phase of training finding inner peace with Master Shifu (Hoffman). But when psychotic albino peacock Lord Shen (Oldman) threatens to conquer China and destroy kung fu, Po and pals must leave the Valley
2008’s Kung Fu Panda was cute and funny and had some great animated action, but didn’t seem an instant classic. Nevertheless, it entertained audiences to the tune of $600 million-plus and became significant enough in popular culture for a cuddly but fierce American baseball star, Pablo Sandoval, to be known thereafter as Kung Fu Panda and for the Atlanta Zoo to name its new baby panda Po.
DreamWorks’ sequel has been lavished with everything it takes to make it bigger and arguably better, and it does not disappoint in the awesomeness. Furiously flying fists, feet and wings are just one aspect of a fine, fun tale of destiny, beautifully directed by Panda head of story Jennifer Yuh Nelson, written by Panda screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, with a standout score by Hans Zimmer and Brit John Powell.
Now that Po and the Furious Five (Angelina Jolie’s tough Tigress, Jackie Chan’s Monkey, Seth Rogen’s Mantis, Lucy Liu’s Viper and David Cross’ Crane) are buddies in sync, there’s a bit of badinage about the temple dojo but little time is wasted on auld lang syne.
Villainous Lord Shen is introduced (in an exquisite Ancient Chinese-ey fable) as a bonkers noble who misused the gift of fireworks to make a terrible weapon, was banished, but has returned to make all China bow at his feet. Luckily it has been foretold that a black-and-white warrior can defeat him! Gary Oldman is fabulous as the feathered fiend and his character animators do his performance proud with a stunning, balletic fighting style, the fan tail flicking with lethal fascination.
The pantheon of new characters includes Danny McBride’s one-eyed leader of Shen’s wolf army, a trio of legendary kung fu masters in Victor Garber’s Thundering Rhino, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Croc and Dennis Haysbert’s Storming Ox, with marvellous Michelle Yeoh as a soothsayer sheep. The excellence of the voice cast is matched with absolutely breathtaking, epic landscapes and gorgeous sets in an eclectic, computer-generated mix of animation styles and techniques. Sensational sequences abound, from a runaway rickshaw chase to a black, white and red hand-painted-looking ‘flashback’, hyperrealistic water scenes and 3D’ed-to-the-max aerial views of the Battle Of Gongmen City, the solitary silhouette of Po poised (as iconically as Dirty Harry on the bridge) on a pagoda rooftop above Shen’s dragonship.
The journey and the saving of the day are interwoven pleasingly with Po’s inner journey of self-discovery. Every superhero rates an origin story and Po’s emerges now that he has finally got around to asking what every five-year-old piped up in the first adventure: why is the panda’s dad a goose? (Why the panda’s dad is a goose who wears clothes and makes noodles we just roll with.) Po has disturbing visions of his infancy, when pressed his adoptive father Mr. Ping (James Hong) has a touching tale to tell of discovering the adorable baby panda, and the sage soothsayer makes revelations that — mark our words — pave the way for KFP3.
A richer plot, life lessons and loving Chinese cultural references rendered by turns sweet, scary and charming, with yet more fantastical kung fu, make this an engaging winner. Stunning visuals make it real art as well.