Pixar may be the Disney of the CGI era, the culturally omnipresent home of heartwarming animated fare, but DreamWorks is creeping up as the dark horse digital funhouse. Yes, it's been to the Shrek well way, way too many times, but last year's How to Train Your Dragon was an action-packed kid flick that managed to keep moms and dads from checking their phones. Now the studio follows 2008 hit Kung Fu Panda with what should be a diminishing-artistic-returns sequel that winds up a brisk entertainment heavy on eye-popping visuals and low on the Mickey Mouse.
Jack Black once again voices Po, a menschy overweight panda who has serendipitously risen from kung-fu fanboy to kung-fu master without losing his gut or his appetite. (Gluttony jokes wear far better than poop gags, as it happens.) A new threat to CG ancient China's stability emerges via power mad/just plain mad Lord Shen, an aristocratic white peacock voiced by Gary Oldman, who's armed with a serious grudge, an army of wolves, and a most un-kung-fu arsenal of cannonry. Po must lead the multi-species kung-fu collective the Furious Five (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Seth Rogen, and Lucy Liu) against the vengeful Lord Shen while sorting out his own mysterious backstory.
While grander and "darker" plus daddy issues make KFP2 sound like a typical overreaching sequel, director Jennifer Yuh's first full-length feature doesn't disappoint. Is it heresy to say that CG panda kung fu rules supreme over what passes for live-action martial arts in the movies these days? Even if it is, it's true here, as kinetic action scene after kinetic action scene stretches but doesn't strain disbelief in CG physics, even as Po and the Five ride a towering pagoda as it crashes to the ground. And despite a more subdued color palette, the crazed Chinoiserie of the series' art direction and animation runs riot with verve and detail, from exploding junks and a character juggling flaming cannonballs to the individual hairs in a red panda's ear and the moss on the background rocks. A few deftly abstracted 2-D animation sequences incorporated into the story (shades of new 2-D standard The Secret of Kells) offer a different dimension of eye candy as well.
But no visual effect here trumps Oldman. A good movie hero needs a good villain, and Lord Shen's sinister strut and barely contained avian sociopathy are embodied in Oldman's hissy mincing every bit as much as in the pixels. And while Black has taken to making all manner of lucrative but unsubtle kiddie crap of late (e.g Gulliver's Travels)—like he was racing Brendan Fraser or something—he once again bottles up his manboy obnoxiousness for sweet, ever-starving Po, who now stands as perhaps his most indelible screen creation, an underachieving underdog almost anyone can root for. There's an expanded cast of big-name actors doing voices here, from Michelle Yeoh to Jean-Claude Van Damme (!), but only Jolie stands out among the one-liners and straight lines, and that's because her demure kung-fu badass Tigress actually has something more to do with the story.
And that is, perhaps, where DreamWorks is starting to pull even with Pixar. KFP2, like its predecessor and How to Train Your Dragon, takes itself somewhat seriously. Rather than contenting itself to pump out slapstick for the kids and cheap pop-culture references to keep parents amused, it puts that energy into a tale of overcoming an uncertain upbringing and finding strength in who you are. It isn't groundbreaking stuff, for sure, but it's handled with some care, and without Pixar's self-reflexive boomer self-regard, even as it heads to a finale that blows up real good. Even the blatant set-up for Kung Fu Panda 3 at the end can't sour a fine kid flick. And who knows, based on this, maybe KFP3