Dir: Jennifer Yuh Nelson. US. 2011. 90mins


Substituting action for charm, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a visual treat but not a sufficient comedic or narrative one. Blessed with vivid animation that’s very much in keeping with the 2008 original, this sequel only takes modest advantage of Jack Black’s game voice work as a hefty martial arts panda trying to save China while also learning the truth about his childhood. It’s an energetic film that isn’t nearly as entertaining as it should be.

Kung Fu Panda 2 builds on the beautiful animation of the original to create even more impressive visuals.

Opening May 26 in the US and much of Asia, Kung Fu Panda 2 would seem well-positioned for a long theatrical run, comparable to the first film’s $632m worldwide take. (Indeed, 3D may help 2 overtake the original instalment’s grosses.) With Kung Fu Panda 2’s first direct animation competition, Cars 2, not arriving until a month later, DreamWorks Animation and Paramount should be feeling fairly confident about their adorable cartoon bear’s commercial prospects, both at the box office and in later DVD sales.

Po (voiced by Black) must confront a new enemy, Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman), an evil peacock bent on world domination. Going into battle with his kung fu team, including Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Po is determined to thwart this menace, but his mission is compromised by his belief that Shen might hold the key to what happened to his long-lost parents.

The first Kung Fu Panda made great use of Black’s oversized persona to embody this lovable misfit character who finds his place in the world by becoming a kung fu master. Unfortunately, that film’s gracefully handled believe-in-yourself message has been replaced by a more conventional action-adventure sequel that puts little emphasis on character development.

Directed by first-time feature helmer Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Kung Fu Panda 2 ups the martial arts sequences, providing nearly wall-to-wall fight scenes. And while these sequences have a muscular vitality, the sequel’s larger scope tends to dwarf much of the spirit that made the first film touching and funny. 

Perhaps not surprisingly then, the new film strains for laughs, with the script by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (who also wrote the original) relying on pratfalls and dopey humour rather than genuinely clever sequences. There’s a nagging sense throughout the film that there’s little room for the characters to breathe; even Po’s seemingly emotional quest to uncover the secrets to his past feels rushed and programmatic, offering little pathos or resonance in relation to the time devoted to this subplot.

On the upside, Kung Fu Panda 2 builds on the beautiful animation of the original to create even more impressive visuals. Utilising a colour palette of mostly reds, blacks, whites and yellows, the movie has a striking look without being gaudy or fussy, and the 3D only enhances the images’ pop.

But while the first film had real heart, Kung Fu Panda 2 is simply a collection of elaborate set pieces, which are competently executed without being particularly dazzling. Consequently, the film’s wide array of voice talent fails to leave much of an impression, save for a few standouts. Black remains the perfect actor to “play” this hyperactive, insecure panda, and Jolie lends some presence to Tigress’ no-nonsense demeanour. But whether it’s Dustin Hoffman’s wise guru – a role greatly reduced from the original – or Oldman’s dull villain, Kung Fu Panda 2 has a lot of big names and big spectacle but little of the essence that gave the original its kick.

Production company: DreamWorks Animation

Domestic distribution: Paramount Pictures, www.paramount.com

Producer: Melissa Cobb

Screenplay: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger

Production designer: Raymond Zibach

Editor: Clare Knight

Music: Hans Zimmer, John Powell

Website: www.kungfupanda.com

Main voice cast: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, James Hong, Michelle Yeoh, Dennis Haysbert, Danny McBride, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Victor Garber, Jackie Chan