Silver Screen: Kung Fu Panda II ***
Speaking of probably unnecessary sequels, Kung Fu Panda is back.
The first movie was a modestly entertaining but largely unexceptional computer-animated kiddie flick. Lazy, chubby panda Po (Jack Black) learns he is a chosen warrior, then overcomes his idleness and ego to become a kung-fu master, all with the help of an awful lot of celebrity voices. What stood out about the film was its incredible art design. Sure, the critters were just photorealistic enough to please the kiddies, but still adroitly expressive. And the color palette, the lush backgrounds, and the occasional welcome intrusion of Chinese-style 2D sketch pieces made it a consistent visual delight, even when the story and characters were mediocre.
That same artistic ambition is present in the sequel, which is on occasion far more beautiful that it would seem to have any right to be. The detailed backgrounds and computer-generated sets are like the animated equivalent of Zhang Yimou backdrops, with lots of bold patterns and startling colors. The verdant, fog-tinted countryside is rendered almost as beautifully as the vistas in Avatar.
This time around, there's a little more invested in the plot as well. Po learns-- not so surprisingly, considering that his father is a goose-- that he is adopted. A flash of a memory about his mother begins recurring just as villainous peacock Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman) returns from exile with his eye on ruling China. Could Shen's evil plan for the future and Po's past somehow be connected?
Of course they are. Kids' movies rarely take a surprising turn at the end-- Bambi was dead the whole time! Nemo stays lost!-- so all the appeal is in the execution. Kung Fu Panda II fares well, merging zippy if not-so-inspired action sequences with well-considered themes about identity and adoption as well as the necessity of finding inner peace. Almost any time the going gets slow, you can kick back and enjoy the sumptuous visuals.
The only thing lost from the first film is the ensemble. They're literally there, but they have almost nothing to do. Stunt-cast Jackie Chan can't have more than five lines, and Dustin Hoffman could have recorded all of his lines while driving the cart from the front to the back nine. Seth Rogen and David Cross are able voice actors, and they add punch to all their lines. Most of the action focuses on Po and Shen, the latter of whom is sharply designed and imbued with wonderful menace by Gary Oldman, one of the all-time great villains.
So maybe it wasn't entirely essential, but Kung Fu Panda II is welcome anyway.