Review in a Hurry: It shouldn't be a surprise after the first one, but Dreamworks' latest cartoon sequel remains a genuinely good martial arts movie, with some of the year's best fight sequences, and inarguably the best use of 3-D in a long time. Shame the script is so redundant—if we had a million bucks for every time the theme of "inner peace" is mentioned aloud, we could fund part 3 single-handedly.
The Bigger Picture: Even after the first Kung Fu Panda was better than its ads made apparent, it's still easy to be skeptical of a Dreamworks animated feature starring Jack Black. From the annoying "Ska-2sh!" tagline to the company's penchant for tired pop-culture gags and pop-song usage, signs were unsettling...not to mention the fact that this was a sequel which could have been painted by numbers and still made big bucks.
No need to fear.
The only noticeable pop-culture gag is a creative visual reference to the game Centipede, and nobody, but nobody sings "Kung Fu Fighting" at any point.
The story is a simple variation on a theme: new villain shows up (a peacock voiced by Gary Oldman) with ties to our hero's past, so Po the Panda (Black) must learn a new skill in order to save his friends—and innocent villagers—from the latest threat.
As happens in many kung-fu flicks, the threat is kinda-sorta based on history, in this case the advent of gunpowder and the way in which it changed fighting.
The new skill Po needs to obtain, in case we didn't mention it before, is inner peace. Oh, inner peace already came up? Good, because you should know that inner peace is important. It helps you focus, and works as a kind of instant therapy. Inner peace also helps you juggle raindrops, if you're a "dragon warrior." Yep, that inner peace sure is impressive. Inner peace. It's no exaggeration to say the movie brings it up that often.
Fair enough, though—martial arts movies aren't required to be great literature (although with multiple screenwriters, one might hope). It's the fights that count, and while animated fights don't often get the credit they deserve (see the vastly underrated TMNT), they're every bit as nicely choreographed as "real" ones, even if the only actual injury being risked in the process is carpal-tunnel syndrome. Also, a CG panda is no less real than the 100+ Hugo Weaving CG duplicates in The Matrix sequels, if you think about it.
And the fights are solid, making great use of the extra dimension. Seriously, with all the cynical cash-grab 3-D films out there, it's a rarity to see one where you never forget the depth.
The first Kung Fu Panda opened up new fighting possibilities by showing us animals that actually embody the different styles and use their differing physicality to great advantage in battle. Open that up further to 3-D, and it's sure to equal fun for fighting fans of all ages.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Amid an all-star voice cast (hi, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman and Seth Rogen), there's one major oddity: Jean-Claude Van Damme. Why on earth would you hire him solely for his speaking ability (or deficiency thereof)?
(Originally published May 26, 2011, at 1:34 p.m. PT)