Movie Review - Kung Fu Panda 2 (***1/2)

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KUNG FU PANDA 2.  92 mins.  PG.  Directed by Jennifer Yuh.  Written by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger.
Another summer weekend, another sequel.  When the first Kung Fu Panda was released three years ago, I think it caught audiences by surprise.  Though it looked like a broad, one-joke comedy, the actual movie was a beautifully animated, exciting action drama.  It took its story seriously and avoided lame pop culture gags.  The kung fu fight scenes were grandly staged and intricately rendered.  And let's face it, Jack Black is the perfect actor to voice Po, the panda.
The sequel picks up not too long after the first film wrapped up.  Po is still the "Dragon Master" and together with the Furious Five (his kung fu companions, not Vin Diesel and Paul Walker), he fights to save villages from evil and tyranny when called upon to do so.  His big challenge this time around - well, it's threefold.  He has to learn inner peace, he has to find out where he comes from (wait, you mean the duck who runs the noodle shop isn't really his father?), and he has to do battle with Shen.  Finely voiced by Gary Oldman, with the appropriate amount of menace for a kids film, Shen is a murderous peacock (aren't they all?) who plots to use gun powder to take out kung fu and achieve world domination.
Kung Fu Panda 2 moves along at a brisk, stealthy clip.  It doesn't really spend any time at all on the supporting characters.  Dustin Hoffman's master Shifu, who was such a big presence in the first film, is barely in it.  And despite having a talented cast voice the Furious Five (Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Angelina Jolie), other than Jolie, each actor is only given at most two lines to say the entire movie.  The focus, rightly so I suppose, is on Po and Shen.  Po is working through a lot of emotional baggage here so there aren't a ton of jokes.
What it lacks in funny, however, it more than makes up for in thrilling kung fu action sequences.  This may be a tad too intense for children under five, but older kids and their parents will surely appreciate the intensity and choreography of these animated fights.  Some of them rival anything you'll see in a live action movie.  The best scene involves Po and the others hiding in a large dragon costume, taking on a batch of evil wolves.  There is this great aerial shot of the dragon moving through town, sucking up wolves left and right through the mouth and then spitting them, beat down and defeated, out the back end.
Like the first film, Kung Fu Panda 2 uses a mix of CGI and hand-drawn animation that looks both authentic and cutting edge.  Dreamworks has done it again - a solid, if not totally spectacular effort that will surely be appreciated by family audiences.  Part 2 is on par with the original, and perhaps just as good if not better, which is high praise indeed for a sequel.  Skadoosh!

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