Art, Movies, Lit, Theater

Panda: A Solid 1-2 Punch

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On Screen: ‘Kung Fu Panda 2′

If “Kung Fu Panda” gave us nothing more than a pitch-perfect nickname for the rotund yet nimble San Francisco Giants third-baseman Pablo Sandoval, it would have been considered a success, at least by me anyways.

But this animated tale in a land of anthropomorphic animals of an actual panda who becomes a kung fu master turned out to be a decent family film in its own right, and its box office success virtually assured a sequel.

Well here we are with “Kung Fu Panda 2,” a movie that manages to stand on its own while delivering a solid 1-2 punch of strong story and impressive visuals. Not to mention the boatloads of acting talent voicing the cast of critters.

Back again is Po (Jack Black), our panda hero who went from bumbling slob to legendary Dragon Warrior over the course of the first film. Also back are his friends and kung-fu compatriots the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross).

They are all led by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) who tasks his band of warriors with saving all of feudal China when an exiled peacock prince named Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) returns to take the throne by force, armed with cannons and a whole lot of gunpowder.

The first “Kung Fu Panda” didn’t really explain Po’s origins, but we finally learn in one of the most shocking cinematic reveals since “The Empire Strikes Back” that Mr. Ping, (James Hong) the goose who runs the village noodle stand, isn’t really Po’s father.

Po learns through a series of repressed memories (portrayed on screen in retro-cool traditional animation) that somehow Lord Shen is responsible for making him an orphan and a quest to save the country also turns into Po’s quest to discover his true identity

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdaMGcOyfjM[/youtube]

As you might expect, “Kung Fu Panda 2” is loaded with impressive action sequences, especially when Po and the Furious Five team up with Master Oxen (Dennis Haysbert) and Master Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) to take on Shen and his army of wolves.

But what you might not expect is that “Kung Fu Panda 2” is also loaded with tons of heart as Po not only strengthens his friendships (especially with the tough-as-nails Tigress) but also as he comes to terms with his long lost past. Now don’t get too worried that I’m painting this all as a voyage of self-discovery, it’s still a movie about a kung-fu fighting panda and there’s plenty of silly fun to be had. But there is just enough depth to ensure that “Kung Fu Panda 2” isn’t dismissed as yet another mere summertime distraction.

The movie was directed by Jennifer Yuh who does an admirable job in her feature-length debut, but I find myself much more interested in the executive producer/creative consultant credit that belongs to Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro is best known for directing dark and visually stunning films like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy,” and not necessarily the first person you would associate with a big-budget, animated family film.

But del Toro is a gifted storyteller and while I don’t want to overplay his role in making “Kung Fu Panda 2,” his fingerprints do leave a mark on the look and feel of the movie.

This is a sequel that is unquestionably worthy of its predecessor and I believe there is still enough creative juice left in this story that the inevitable third installment in the “Kung Fu Panda” series, which is teased at the end of this movie, will be a worthy venture as well.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” is rated PG for sequences of martial arts action and mild violence.

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