Kung Fu Panda 2
Directed by Jennifer Yuh
If I could reduce the overall inferiority of DreamWorks Animation to Pixar down to a single quality, I think I could settle on dialogue. Not because of wit or lack thereof (though there is that), but the sheer volume of it, in both senses of the word—the inability to trust in animated images to the degree that allows movies like Wall-E or Up some of their most transcendent moments. Kung Fu Panda 2, a sequel to one of the best DreamWorks films, is an undeniably great-looking cartoon, with vast Chinese visas populated by adorable animal villages and many species of athletic martial-arts masters, even making elegant and neat-looking use of the dreaded 3-D (always a better fit for animation). Yet the filmmakers still don't fully trust their visual acumen, and manage to produce a cacophony of chintzy talk, from action movie cliches ("incoming!") to lazy colloquialisms ("see, that's the thing") to dopey wisecracks ("chew on that, fatty!") to watered-down Jack Black treatises on awesomeness.
Despite the patented DreamWorks chatter (and the accompanying celebrity voice mandate, filling even tertiary roles with familiar tones), Black remains relatively restrained and sweetly fumbly as Po, the rotund panda who ascended to warrior status in the previous installment. The reasons for revisiting Po and his Furious Five sidekick team are typical saga-izing of what was a nice, simple story; now Po has to learn about where he came from, question his identity, and feel conflicted about his adopted father (a goose, endearingly voiced, as before, by James Hong). He must also fend off the world-dominating ambitions of Lord Shen (a peacock voiced by Gary Oldman), who has an unsurprising connection to our hero's past. Also, all of this is weirdly predicated on Po remembering stuff that happened to him as an infant, treated as repressed memories rather than, you know, a medical miracle.
Sequelitis aside, though, Kung Fu Panda 2 stands with, or at least close to, the original film and How to Train Your Dragon as DreamWorks cartoons that approximate, if not a Pixar level of artistry, a Regular Disney level of entertaining craft. The animation finds inventive ways of transposing kung fu into animated-critter forms, especially when it comes to the spindly menace of Lord Shen, who looks like he may have just laid to waste all of the Owls of Ga'Hoole. Of course, watching cartoon characters do crazy kung-fu stunts loses most of the ballet inherent to watching actual humans leaping and punching, but there's a different sort of pleasure in the film's intricately animator-choreographed action sequences. Director Jennifer Yuh also makes smart use of flat, hand-drawn-style animation during those dubious flashbacks, perhaps remembering the success of a similar fantasy sequence in the original film. Kung Fu Panda 2 is fun to watch and only a mild, occasional annoyance to listen to; with so many more DreamWorks sequels on the way, this may have to count as a triumph for now.
Opens May 26