Jennifer Yuh’s Kung Fu Panda 2, an exquisite looking but substantially hollow sequel to the smash hit from 2008, only exists to rehash conflicts of identity and personality tormenting panda bear Dragon Warrior Po (voiced by Jack Black). While the first film dealt with Po’s ascension to the top of the kung-fu ladder, Yuh’s film examines another sort of origin story: Po’s traumatic childhood. The immergence of Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a deadly Peacock looking to rule all of China, brings up the secrets of Po’s past. As with his relationship with kung fu in the first film, realizations about his youth establish a similar character arc for Po where self-confidence and fulfilling your destiny are one in the same.
All the familiar characters are back, including Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Crane (David Cross). Despite their obvious importance to Po’s success as a fighter, these characters are completely pushed to the background, so as not to take the spotlight away from our hero’s listless search for the truth. The makeshift screenplay by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger plants viewer-friendly references to Hong Kong cinema while ignoring the more glaring inconsistencies in character development. Each dialogue scene, which establishes a redundant cause-and-effect momentum, becomes a carbon copy of the previous one. Kung Fu Panda 2 works best when it moves forward in exciting bursts of action, yet most of its forgettable duration is stricken with lengthy exposition.
Much like the original, Kung Fu Panda 2 contains a colorful and layered production design that recreates ancient Chinese cities and natural settings with a pristine attention to detail. We get an excellent sense of time and place when Po and company assault Lord Shen’s hideout, and the kinetic kung fu is one of the highlights of the film. Interestingly, Kung Fu Panda 2 doesn’t feel like a rush job like many sequels. There’s an attention to the nuances of texture that shows how much time the technicians spent on creating the dynamic visual aesthetic.
By the end, Po experiences some of the same recycled epiphanies from the first film, sans their emotional panache. Familiar territory like this is frustrating, and in the grand scheme of things unoriginality merely feeds the opening box office receipts. After that moment, Kung Fu Panda 2 will quickly fade from memory. Po may be the Dragon Warrior, but his victories sure feel fixed.