There is a moment in Kung Fu Panda 2 Dreamworks’ stellar follow-up to its 2008 talking-animal blockbuster that is as clever and subversive as any I’ve seen in recent animated films. Just before the climactic final battle our hero Po (Jack Black) thought to have been vanquished re-appears above a rooftop to declare his challenge to the villainous Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) who sits upon a battleship in the canal below preparing mount his siege. As Po launches into his speech the camera pulls back to reveal that Shen is in fact well out of earshot; he can’t make out a single word the panda is saying. Shen pleas in vain for him to speak up only to give up in frustration and commence his assault forthwith.
There are lovely bits like this scattered throughout Kung Fu Panda 2 little moments that undermine traditional action-movie tropes to hilarious effect. Much praise is owed to director Jennifer Yuh Nelson and returning writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger who have adroitly addressed the chief – and arguably only – complaint about the first film: that its story was too lightweight too formulaic too cautiously adherent to the conventional hero’s journey blueprint. Their follow-up may not be as charming or whimsical as its predecessor but it makes up for it with added depth and emotional resonance.
How much depth you ask? Genocide childhood abandonment issues and industrialization’s destabilizing effects are just a few of the formidable topics touched upon in the sequel. But don’t fret; the filmmakers haven’t suddenly set their sights on Pixar-grade profundity. The tone of Kung Fu Panda 2 is still as earnest and unpretentious – and joyful – as before.
And it’s still anchored by a refreshingly restrained Black as the voice of Po the chubby noodle-slinger turned kung fu superstar. The second installment finds Po and the Furious Five – Tigress (Angelina Jolie) Mantis (Seth Rogen) Crane (David Cross) Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Viper (Lucy Liu) – facing a formidable new foe in the diminutive guise of Lord Shen a seething tyrant whose new invention the cannon threatens to make kung fu obsolete. Po has a personal connection with the peacock: It was Shen who spooked by a soothsayer’s premonition sacked Po’s native village several years prior forcing Po’s parents to ship their infant son off to safety – and onto the doorstep of his adoptive father Mr. Ping (James Hong).
Po’s only hope of victory his mentor Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) informs him is to find inner peace. (That’s all?!?) The path to nirvana is a jagged one marked with dizzying chases and riveting kung fu battles all elaborately choreographed and beautifully rendered. As we’ve come to expect with CG sequels the animation in Kung Fu Panda 2 surpasses that of the previous film retaining its signature look while adding greater detail and more exquisite landscapes. Though the 3D is top-quality I would still recommend seeing the film in 2D if only because of the darkening effect caused by so many 3D projectors. Colors these lush deserve as bright a canvas as possible.
Poor Shrek (Mike Myers). The irascible ogre just can’t catch a break. First he has to leave his beloved swamp to rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). Then he marries her and has to go meet the in-laws. NOW he’s stuck in Far Far Away as its de facto ruler after the frog king croaks. Oh and he finds out Fiona is pregnant too. All this throws the great green one into a tailspin because 1) impending fatherhood scares the bejeezus out him and 2) he believes he has no business being king. So Shrek sets out with his pals Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) to fetch Artie aka Arthur (Justin Timberlake) Fiona’s cousin and next in line for the throne. Thing is Artie’s just a teenager—and kind of a loser one at that; he really doesn’t want to be king either. Meanwhile on the home front Fiona and her merry band of princesses have to defend the castle against the vain Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) who’s hell bent on getting revenge and taking over Far Far Away. And so the high jinks ensure. But it’s OK it all works out in the end. Certainly part of Shrek’s charm is its vocal talent. Myers Diaz and Murphy are all old pros by now—which is actually a good and bad thing. They are definitely more comfortable with their roles but Shrek isn’t nearly as charmingly irritable as he once was and Fiona not as feisty. Guess they are growing up. And Murphy used to get all the best lines as the jittery Donkey. Now that job has been delegated to the likes of Banderas as Puss as well as side characters such as the Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) Pinocchio (Cody Cameron) and the Three Little Pigs (also Cameron). Also adding to the humor are the various princesses especially SNL alums Amy Poehler as the sardonic Snow White and Maya Rudolph as turncoat Rapunzel plus Amy Sedaris as the dimwitted Cinderella. Timberlake is sweetly goofy as Artie while Brit comic legend Eric Idle voices the New Age-y on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown Merlin the magician with aplomb. It’s these characterizations that make Shrek the Third zing. Much like Shrek 2 this third installment ultimately comes off as a retread. They just haven’t been able to recapture the magic created in the original. Instead the filmmakers regurgitate the same comic set ups and in some cases the same jokes. Maybe they won’t ever be able to reach that same plateau. But you’ve still got to give the Shrek franchise props for being the granddaddy of fairy-tale spoofs. Even if the sequels don’t measure up the Shrek phenomenon on the whole has set the bar creating a certain charisma in the let’s-make-fun-of-traditional-lore milieu. Shrek the Third highlights include: Worcestershire High School where Artie goes to school which is full of John Hughes teenagers talking in medieval oh-thou-di’nt-just-say-that speak; Charming being relegated to doing third-rate dinner theater; Pinocchio trying to talk his way around not lying and more. Oh who cares what us dumb critics say anyway. Kids are going to love Shrek the Third regardless of whether it hits the mark or not.