Special Photo: Paramount. Jack Black voices the character Po in "Kung Fu Panda 2."
2 1/2 out of 4 stars
It appears that Memorial Day 2011 is the don't-fix-it-if-it's-not-broken weekend for behemoth movie franchises. In essentially the same manner as its main competitor ("The Hangover Part II"), "Kung Fu Panda 2" (KFP2) does little to distinguish itself from what came before and only seems concerned with cashing in on a highly lucrative brand name.
Despite receiving a 2008 Best Animated Picture nomination, "Kung Fu Panda" wasn't all that special from a storytelling perspective but was admittedly a technical marvel. The artwork was top shelf and much the same can be said for the sequel. Unlike many recent popcorn extravaganzas, "KFP2" fully warrants its 3-D presentation and its accompanying inflated admission price.
It's shiny, bright and innocuous; kind of like a high-end fishing lure. Regular fish think these lures are actual food but the smarter fish know they're not real worms and stay away. Interpret that analogy any way you wish.
Again set in a non-specific era in an alternate universe version of China where there are no humans and actual Chinese is not spoken, "KFP2" continues where the other left off but barely moves forward with the narrative. This is understandable as DreamWorks is planning a total of six installments of this kid-pleasing cash cow. In instances like this you don't want to give the audience any more than what is absolutely necessary.
For those who find lead Jack Black to be a grating and talentless actor there's good news. This is Black's most restrained performance since "The Holiday." His character Po still uses the word "awesome" far too often and the screenwriters are still trying to transform both he and his character into the reincarnation of John Belushi, but Black surprisingly keeps himself on a relative short emotive leash.
Not exactly the brightest bulb in the box, Po has finally figured out that his father (a goose) is not his biological parent, a plot point that is revisited time and time again in flashbacks and in a complex preamble that is far beyond the grasp of the target family audience.
It should be mentioned that at the barely half-full preview screening, there were a few adult chuckles, but the majority of approving sounds came from the mouths of toddlers. In another blunt analogy, "KFP2" works as a wonderfully overpriced pacifier, however not all tikes or their adult chaperones were thrilled. There was significant seat-squirming, idle, non-movie related chit-chat and inappropriate cell phone texting taking place throughout the entire running time of the film.
The success of any animated movie is heavily dependent on the impact of the villain and as in the first installment the producers didn't leave that aspect of the story up to chance. If you want a really good bad guy, hire an established, no-nonsense, dramatic British thespian, like Disney did with Jeremy Irons as Scar in "The Lion King." As good if not better than Ian McShane's dastardly tiger in the first, Gary Oldman as the menacing peacock Lord Shen is a thoroughly loathsome antagonist and the best character in the movie.
Shen has some connection to Po's "Roots" quest and also plans on taking over China with his Weapons of Mass Destruction, but being that this is probably ancient China, Shen's WMDs are not nukes, just mere fire-breathing cannons.
"KFP2" does exactly what DreamWorks wanted. It provides the audience with familiar cinematic comfort food that is high in tasty, yet empty calories. It performs as it should and takes zero chances -- just like a summer holiday soon-to-be-blockbuster should. (DreamWorks)