A few years ago when the first "Kung Fu Panda" was released I didn't expect much from it. Jack Black's complete personification of this kung fu fanboy in the form of a panda though, took the movie to a whole other level. It was funny, its story entertained both children and adults, and it had some pretty awesome animated action sequences. Those three things continue to be strong in this sequel simply titled "Kung Fu Panda 2" (I was a little upset they dropped the subtitle "The Kaboom of Doom", but oh well) and some of the things lacking in the first movie, mainly real characterization for the supporting players, are still a slightly absent here as well. It is hard to really talk bad about "Kung Fu Panda 2" though because it at least feels as if it is trying to surpass the first part in as many ways as it can and deliver a worthwhile continuance of the story to its fans. In a summer where the last two weekends major releases have only offered three sequels (two of which are much of the same) "Panda 2" gets props for rising to the occasion.

This time around Po has now become at least somewhat comfortable in his role as the Dragon Warrior and leader of the Furious Five. There is no hesitation when bad guys come a calling that Po and his teammates will rush to the rescue and defend whatever it might be that need defending with their awesome kung-fu skills. As an animated film it is hard to walk the line between a super cheesy message movie that teaches the kiddies in the audience a morally uplifting lesson while keeping their parents entertained with a dynamic storyline and some subliminal humor. While the first "Panda" seems to have succeeded more in the comedy department than this uneven second entry does, the real commitment here actually seems to be the story. It has been said that Dreamworks is planning a six-film stretch for Po and his gang so it is reassuring to see they might have already worked out the storyline for most of these sequels. Though the first half-hour or so is scarcely dry with laughs we are engaged by the mystery of what actually happened to Po's parents and how he came to call a noodle-making goose his father.

Adding to the tension that builds early on in the film and creates reason for Po, Master Shifu and his furious five to feel threatened is the addition of the evil peacock, Lord Shen (voiced by the wonderfully evil Gary Oldman). In an almost Oedipus like tale, a soothsayer foretells of Shen's defeat by a warrior of black and white, thus Shen goes out and kills the panda population. This kind of mythic origin story for Po creates serious re enforcement for the reasoning behind Po becoming the Dragon warrior in the first place. In the first film it was taken as more of a destiny -type deal, but in revealing Lord Shen's motivations we come to realize that Po is simply fulfilling his destiny. Within slowly piecing together his tragic beginnings Po is also trying to master the art of inner-peace. Having such an internal conflict distracting him from the mission at hand, Po has to come to terns with what he knows is true and in doing so he learns those life lessons every movie aimed toward children should have. These are deep themes for an animated film though and not only do these themes resonate with the younger viewers (it teaches being true to one's self and how in doing so how much one can really achieve) but they are so genuinely emotional (even through the eyes of cuddly animated creatures) that the adults in the audience will surely realize things about themselves as well.
As the film moves along at a brisk pace, it does begin to pick up the laughs, never afraid to poke fun at its own seriousness and give its protagonist the benefit of having a real dramatic moment, it is in these little spots of satire that "Kung Fu Panda" finds most of its humor. Blending that together with the truly beautiful visuals the film has to offer make for a movie that I thought actually improved upon the original in most aspects. Though I did say earlier it is hard to speak negatively of the picture it is true that this sequel, just like its predecessor, has a wide variety of voice talent going for it that it simply wastes. I mean, you can't have Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, and Seth Rogen playing supporting characters if they only get five lines a piece. What is worse is they are only ever identified as with their celebrity persona, the characters in the film are nothing more than faces. These characters really need more fleshing out, especially for being such critical pieces to Po's success. Whereas Jack Black is at the top of his game in making Po a fully realized character, the others suffer from too many characters to introduce and to keep relevant. I would like to see more Shifu in the next installment as Dustin Hoffman's performance in the first one matched Black's pound for pound (he is criminally underused here), as well as a more consistent comedy aspect. That combined with the great visuals and willingness to push the story to the forefront by the teams behind these films will only cause this series to grow better and better with each episode.

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