It takes longer for the awesomeness to arrive. And you can't really replicate the element of surprise that the first movie had — a fanboy panda who gets to team up with his martial arts heroes. But Kung Fu Panda 2 is a sequel that delivers more heart than laughs and is, if anything, more visually dazzling than the 2008 original film.
Cuddly, plush Po (voiced by Jack Black) is now a reasonably competent Dragon Warrior, a sixth member of the Furious Five, meting out justice with his mad kung fu skillz. But there is a new threat: a preening peacock who covets all of China and has a new weapon, "one that breathes fire and spits metal," a weapon whose arrival on the scene "could be the end of kung fu."
Po and Co. have a quest: Stop Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) and destroy his weapon. But first, Po's mentor (Dustin Hoffman) has a new life lesson for him: Find inner peace.
Black has fewer lines with the gonzo gusto of the first film, just the odd "My fist hungers for justice!" But the soul of Panda 2 is Po's real quest, the one that gives him flashbacks every time he sees Lord Shen's peacock-feather emblem on the wolves that are the villain's minions. "Where did I come from?" he asks.
A dumpling-loving panda raised by a wok-wielding goose has to figure out sooner or later that he's adopted.
Artist-turned-director Jennifer Yuh, head of story on the first Kung Fu Panda, sees to it that this sequel is both more striking — cut-out shadow puppets for the opening credits, 2-D flashbacks to Po's childhood — and more Confucian. When the evil megalomaniac Lord Shen asks his soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh, as a goat) for his fortune, her answer applies to greedheads of any age: "The cup you choose to fill has no bottom."
There are wonderful grace notes in this script, as befits a movie with a distinctly Buddhist bent.
The chases are 3-D wonders, the martial arts brawls are "severely cool," as Po would put it. But the stunt voice casting doesn't pay off. Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Seth Rogen and others don't have enough lines to make an impact. And it takes a solid, stolid half-hour to finally get to that first string of laughs, that first blast of flip, funny awesomeness.
Still, Panda 2 has more heart-tugging moments than any Shrek sequel. Which is why we're almost sure to see more of tales of Master Po.