A sequel rarely improves upon the movie it follows. However, “Kung Fu Panda 2,” like the Toy Story franchise, just keeps getting better. The secret (are you listening “Hangover” folks?) is to find new depths and new challenges for familiar characters. “Kung Fu Panda 2” does that quite nicely indeed. It explores Po the Panda’s background so deeply and powerfully that adoptive parents will want to be aware of the film before trundling their little ones to the theater.
Po (Jack Black) won the adoration of China and a place on the roster of famous Kung Fu animals in the first movie. Now he and the stoic Tigress (Angelina Jolie) and the other animals of the Fabulous Five train and wait for the day another threat rears its ugly head in China.
The head that rears instead is quite beautiful. It belongs to Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock who, unbeknownst to Po, factored heavily in Po’s past. Lord Shen, much to the dismay of his parents, long ago discovered a new use for the gunpowder that fills fireworks. He created a weapon that can defeat even the most skilled Kung Fu masters. An old goat, remarkably similar to Yoda around the eyes and horns, served as court soothsayer for Shen’s parents. She prophesied that Lord Shen will be stopped by a panda. This led Shen to an act so brutal that his astonished parents banished him from their lands.
Now he’s back, weapon in tow, to take over his ancestral home first and all China second.
Meanwhile, it has dawned on Po that the noodle-cooking goose he calls father is unlikely to be his biological parent, given the feathers vs fur issue, not to mention the incredible size difference. Po wonders who he is. The answer is wrapped up in Lord Shen’s past misdeeds. The battle to stop Shen becomes for Po a quest for personal discovery as well.
The adoptive storyline is rich and beautiful, so much so that it may raise stormy emotions for adoptive families. I’ve taken the unusual step of giving a brief synopsis below, spoilers included, so you can know what you’re in for.
In fact, the entire movie is beautiful. With ethereal Asian-inspired animation, some of the images are shockingly lovely. Shen, the evil peacock, oozes cool. He’s equal parts fanning feathers that cut like a dagger and dancing-bird Kung Fu. While the film occasionally pokes fun at Po, who is the very essence of pudgy, nerdy, Kung Fu fanboy, his rise from couch potato to hero was well documented in the first movie. The film doesn’t retread that territory. Instead, it explores his need to make peace with his past.
Beautiful as it is, it’s also a lot of fun. Po gets in plenty of good lines, but it’s the fight scenes that really deliver the knock-out punch. In the first sequence, the gang defends a town of bunnies from Shen’s wolves, but the bunnies keep getting in the way. Plus, they feel it’s their duty to play good battle music to accompany the fighting. Another scene pits Po and a wolf in a rickshaw race through town, a madcap ride careening through vendor stalls and markets while cradling giggling baby bunnies. Those bunnies sure do cause trouble. The scene in which the group takes on the disguise of a Chinese New Year dragon is just plain silly.
Set in China, there are some influxes of Western concepts of Chinese religion: lots of emphasis on finding inner peace and such. In addition, people uncomfortable with mysticism should be aware of the fortune teller figure, a goat who reads the future in smoke and tea leaves.
In the end, however, it comes down to the story of two sons and three families. Both Po and Lord Shen have daddy issues, but the love of Po’s parents – all of them – has made him the person he is. Lord Shen’s rejection of his parents’ love made him the person he is as well, which becomes his downfall. It’s a lot to pack into a sequel, and leave room for giggles too, but the folks over at Dreamworks accomplish their goal, creating one of the finest movies yet this year.
Po’s adoption story is central to the movie. Po, a large panda, was raised by a small goose. His father loves him dearly and worries about him constantly. Po has flashbacks of another face, a panda face, from when he was a child. He asks his father about his panda parents. The scene is cute in the sense that the goose has a hard time telling Po he’s adopted, although, geez, look at him…he’s a panda. But it’s also sad as Po is confused about what that means and the goose is terrified Po will reject him as father. The goose tells Po he was delivered in a box of turnips and he knows nothing else. He also tells him how he started caring for the baby panda, tried to find its parents but couldn’t, and quickly fell in love with his new son. “I’m still your father, right Po?” he asks, but Po leaves without answering. The goose is quite sad. Not angry, but sad and worried.
Po confronts Shen, looking for answers. Shen says yes, he was there in the panda village on the night Po barely remembers. He taunts Po, telling him his parents didn’t love him.
Injured in the confrontation, Po is rescued by the goat, who takes him to the ruins of the panda village. There, Po confronts the memory of his past. He remembers Shen’s wolves attacking the village when he was a baby. His father tells his mother to run with the baby while he fights. He is presumably killed, sacrificing himself for the family. The mother runs but the wolves pursue. She eventually finds a box of turnips and hides her son there, her eyes brimming with tears. She runs and gets the attention of the wolves, leading them away from her son. The scene is quite intense. Beautiful, but intense.
Po defeats Shen, telling him the past isn’t as important as what he decides to do now. He also knows who he is now. Po goes home to his father the goose and lets him know he will always be his dad. They love each other very much.
In a final scene, almost an epilogue, Po’s panda father finds a flyer showing Po saving China. “My son is alive,” he says. Po’s panda mother is there as well. The movie ends there, probably setting up a sequel.
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