At its heart, Kung Fu Panda 2 has a bafflingly obvious, fundamental structural flaw: The opening sequence gives the ending away. Worse yet, the movie never lets the audience forget it. During the scarier bits, small children may be comforted by the frequent, nagging reminders that we all know where this is going. But adult viewers—clearly an intended demographic for the first Kung Fu Panda, with its copious martial-arts-movie references, quick wit, and real sense of threat—are likely to be disappointed at how much dumber, broader, and more obvious this sequel is. The original film was a compelling surprise, an unusually fun and sophisticated take on the wacky-animal CGI movie. The sequel remains visually beautiful and strikingly designed, but otherwise, it’s a surprise in all the wrong ways.
And it’s all highly unnecessary. The 3-D film opens with a 2-D history of a kingdom ruled by peacocks, where the arrogant Lord Shen (Gary Oldman, who makes a purring highlight of a villain, as usual) decided to harness fireworks as an empire-building weapon instead of a harmless diversion. When a soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) predicted that a black-and-white warrior would be his downfall, he took out his frustrations on the local panda population, which is how Kung Fu Panda hero Po (Jack Black) lost his parents. Periodically throughout the sequel, Po flashes back to this traumatic event and tries to decipher his memories. The audience knows everything he doesn’t, so there’s no tension to his efforts, just a grating wait for him to catch up. And it doesn’t help that no matter what Shen does, the soothsayer keeps doggedly reminding Shen that Po is destined to kick his ass. Add in an early segment where Po’s mentor Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) shows Po exactly how to save China from Shen’s militaristic ambitions, and there’s a deeply unsatisfying predeterministic vibe to Kung Fu Panda 2, as if it’s all just killing time while waiting for the described ending of the movie to finally take place.
And it doesn’t help that all the character business between prologue and conclusion feels rote, rushed, and sometimes delivered with the sloppy pace of an improv comedy. The stable of returning celebrities (Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Jackie Chan) and newly added characters (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber) barely get a handful of lines between them, with only Tigress (Angelina Jolie) speaking up enough to establish a sense of personality. At least the kinetic fight sequences from the first film return in force—but even that proves unfortunate, since the film tries to mine terror from the idea of gunpowder as proof against even the strongest kung-fu master, but it never properly navigates the ridiculousness of fighting a lightning-fast, infinitely flexible adversary with a slow, heavy, hard-to-aim, unpredictable cannon. Here’s another prophecy: Kung Fu Panda 2 will make a mint. (After the blockbuster success of the first film, DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg revealed that a total of six Kung Fu Panda films are in planning.) The goodwill sparked by the first film will no doubt get grown-up butts into theater seats, but there’s going to be a lot more restless, disappointed shifting among those butts than there was last time around.