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Movie Review

Kung Fu Panda 2

‘Panda’ stresses serious subjects over silly stuff

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By Janice Page
Globe Staff / May 26, 2011

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How did I not see this coming?

In the original “Kung Fu Panda,’’ Po, the chubby Chinese bear voiced by Jack Black, was introduced as the heroically destined son of a humble goose named Mr. Ping (James Hong). Their unusual-looking relationship was never explained, but in a cartoon filled with anthropomorphic animals skilled in death-defying martial arts that hardly seemed like the biggest plot hole.

Now “Kung Fu Panda 2’’ puts adoption and Po’s search for his true identity at the center of a sequel that isn’t shy about trading some of its ancestor’s light and fluffy parts for a whole that’s considerably darker and heavier. The shift in tone is neither unprecedented nor inherently bad (see the exceptional “Toy Story 3’’), but it is something you ought to know before bringing young children to a screening — particularly young adopted children, as I unwittingly did.

In the hands of first-time director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, this latest installment of the “KFP’’ franchise takes its cues from martial-arts classics. Yuh Nelson was promoted from the creative/design ranks of the 2008 DreamWorks original directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, so it comes as no surprise that the sequel amps up the beauty of its ancient China setting and delivers 3-D animation that enhances, even if it doesn’t exactly astound. For all its high-spirited action scenes, the film’s most impressive sequence involves a single water droplet, which is later echoed in an artfully choreographed battle involving cannonballs.

Original writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger are back, as is much of the cast, including Angelina Jolie (Tigress), Seth Rogen (Mantis), Jackie Chan (Monkey), David Cross (Crane), and Lucy Liu (Viper), a.k.a. the Furious Five who support Black’s adventures as Po. Dustin Hoffman again plays the wise Master Shifu, who pops up when needed to guide Po’s spiritual journey, and there are some inspired new additions to round things out: Gary Oldman as Po’s latest arch nemesis, Michelle Yeoh as a soothsayer, Jean-Claude Van Damme as a past-his-prime crocodile.

It’s still Black’s franchise, though. And part of the problem with this sequel is how little it lets its star just riff with silly abandon, as he did throughout the original, rather than advance the serious themes set out by Yuh Nelson and her crew.

Exit here if you’d rather not read any spoilers. If this review does nothing else it’s going to warn parents that “Kung Fu Panda 2’’ contains elements that definitely aren’t suitable for all ages, and a few that shouldn’t suit anyone.

Here’s the story: As Po the “Dragon Warrior’’ goes up against a new/old brand of evil that seeks power over all his countrymen, he flashes back to a childhood moment when his parents, pursued by attackers intent on exterminating the entire panda population, placed him in a vegetable basket that eventually found its way to Mr. Ping’s noodle shop. Discovering that he was adopted throws Po into an identity crisis that continues through most of the movie and repeatedly leads him to ask, “Who am I?’’ and “Where did I come from?’’ — powerful questions for little ears. As Po gradually learns the horrible details of his parents’ fate and who was responsible for it (no killings are shown, but the ominous memory-flashes and images of pursuit are intensely scary), he must muster both courage and inner peace to defeat his evil opponent and grasp a classic martial-arts lesson: You can rise above your past, no matter how tragic, if you embrace the present and become the person (or bear) you choose to be.

It’s a worthwhile message. And if “KFP2’’ had ended it there I might agree with Jolie’s recent offscreen comments that this film simply provides talking points for all families, including those conceived through adoption, who want to explore them. But in a reprehensible stroke that seems calculated purely to set up the next installment of the franchise, a final scene shows Po’s biological father, who apparently survived the killings, uttering a premonition that his son is alive.

That’s one heck of a talking point. Just be sure you’re ready for it.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com.

KUNG FU PANDA 2

Directed by:

Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Written by: Jonathan Aibel

and Glenn Berger

Starring: Jack Black, Gary Oldman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Lucy Liu, and Dustin Hoffman

At: Boston Common,

Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 91 minutes

Rated: PG (martial arts action, mild violence, intense scenes of anthropomorphic

animals in peril)

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