Kung Fu Panda, the tale of a most unlikely creature recruited by an ageing martial arts master, was a decent, if derivative, computer animated feature. Made in 2008, it featured a kitsch, chocolate box rendition of ‘Ancient China’ and a story that mixed a charming finding-oneself trajectory with inventive fight sequences and irreverent humour. It also came at what might come to be seen as the end of Jack Black’s heyday, the period in which his dumbstruck, short-circuiting shtick could seemingly enliven any material. More of a gimmick than a coherent idea for a movie, it was nevertheless the closest Dreamworks had come to challenging Pixar until upping their ante considerably with How To Train Your Dragon.
After three seemingly very long years, Kung Fu Panda is back, and in some respects is worth the wait. This time Jack Black’s Po is forced to take on Shen (Gary Oldman), an evil warlord with designs on all of China, as well as a dark role in Po’s past. Shen is, like the rest of the film, beautifully designed, a peacock envisaged as part flowing, graceful bird, part mechanised monster. Incredibly realised landscapes and Chinese palaces make this easily one of the most visually stunning and textural animated films ever made. It is this that captures the eye more than the action during the opening hour, and therein lies the problem.
Like the first film, Po teams up with a set of companions comprised of a menagerie of animals, including a tigress (Angelina Jolie), a crane (Arrested Development’s David Cross) and a praying mantis (Seth Rogen). As well as representing China’s calendar animals (one wonder where the rat is hiding), they represent one of the story’s key themes: that where you come from isn’t important compared to who you choose to be.
But whereas the first film used its colourful collection of characters – and comic talent – to create winning camaraderie, the sequel settles for pushing them into the background in favour of Po’s duel with Shen, and himself. This wouldn’t be so noticeable if Black’s voice performance weren’t so leaden. Failing to add the crackle that has made him so endearing in recent years, he seems on something of a downward slope, perhaps weighed down by having made too many films, such as Gulliver’s Travels, that are frankly beneath his ability.
What emerges from a story that contains such interesting elements as Shen’s role in Po’s orphaning – in what amounts to a fairly blatant evocation of a panda massacre for a children’s film – and the invention of gunpowder, is essentially a rehash of the plot of the first film. Po must discover who he is through the art of Kung Fu (again), but this time an underwritten script, which underuses its cast and fails to develop any coherent sense of plot development, treads water from one handsomely mounted fight scene to the next.
The overall impression is of a computer game in which one kills time with plot until the next fight sequence, and nothing is really at stake until the final boss enters during the final level. But whereas Scott Pilgrim vs The World picked up that idea and ran with it, Kung Fu Panda 2 feels like the by-product of only half the team showing up to work. An eleventh hour Lost-style twist, meanwhile, just feels tacked on for the sake of another potential cash cow. A visually engrossing, technical triumph, Kung Fu Panda 2 is worth seeing on the big screen for the sheer eye popping nature of its realisation. But dramatically, it’s not packing a punch.