Weinberg Reviews KUNG FU PANDA 2

We're all different types of movie freaks, of course, but generally what we all want from a big, flashy summer movie is:

1. Action (or at least energy)
2. Humor (or at least wit)
3. Heart (or at least character)
4. Spectacle (in one form or another)

Lately, the superhero movies have been cornering the market on the aforementioned commodities, but right behind (or slightly ahead) are the animated features. You can nitpick about which ones are lame, lazy, or forgettable, but it's also hard to deny that we're presently living through an animated feature renaissance, one that happened naturally once the novelty of the high-tech digital toys started to wane ... and the true artists started using these dazzling tools as new-fangled paintbrushes. In other words, the technical side of computer animation is at an all-time high, and fortunately we have outfits like Pixar, Dreamworks, and (yes) several others delivering an impressive handful of high-quality "cartoon" movies that manage to pull off that incredibly valuable trick:

Capably appealing to kids while giving the parents something fun to watch at the same time.

Hardly a novel concept, but it's always great to see when another new example pops up: This summer's Kung Fu Panda 2 is, quite simply, one of the most beautifully amusing animated features in quite some time. "Amusing" because it's simply funny, and "beautifully" because, as usual from Dreamworks, the animation is nothing short of brilliant across the board. From the character designs to the eye-tickling architecture of a fantasy world, and from simple landscapes to elaborate action scenes -- Kung Fu Panda 2 is (much like its predecessor) a wondrous feast for the eyes, if nothing else.

Fortunately there is much else: Jack Black at his most charming and goofily sedate; a truly eclectic voice cast full of new pals and old; a pair of slightly trite but perfectly palatable "morality lessons" for the younger audience members; lots of humor that's pitched both inside (for the parents) and silly (for the young and the young at heart); a simple (even familiar) plot concoction that doles out story points at a brisk clip and doesn't skimp on the action ...

Ah, yes! The action sequences! One of the most important ingredients of the summer movie. And, frankly, I don't care if the source is a kick-ass superhero, a drunken pirate, or a bumbling panda: solid action is solid action. Kung Fu Panda 2 offers scrapes, chases, escapes and explosions at a very generous clip, slowing down only to give its slick menagerie some jokes (or plot development) to deliver, and then it's off to another flashy moment of crash 'n' smash. (A silly chase sequence involving a fake dragon is rather inspired, and it illustrates that there still IS a way to do slight "potty humor" with a small dash of class and creativity.)

Kung Fu Panda skeptics can either catch up on the original this weekend or just dive into the sequel cold. Part 2 is a stand-alone adventure that presents a quest, some redemption, much loyalty, some sacrifice, and a frankly awesome peacock of a villain, who is voiced just flawlessly by Gary Oldman. Kung Fu Panda 2 is a comedy, obviously, but the franchise has also shown real commitment to also offering actual "adventure tales" both times out. Ian McShane was a memorable villain in the first chapter; Oldman might be even better in Part 2. Angelina Jolie provides the voice of a hard-fisted tigress; Dustin Hoffman returns as a wise master; and while the rest of the cast is relegated mainly to one-liners and bouts of plot jargon, there's still fun to be found in the contributions of Seth Rogen, David Cross, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu. (You'll also find new allies voiced by Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber, and Jean-Claude Van Damme!)

Infinitely more likable here than in most of his live-action films, Jack Black seems to be really settling in with the silly-yet-heroic Po character, and it's nice to see that the screenwriters have written him as decidedly less naive (but no less clumsy) this time around. It's a small touch, really, but if we're to join this "Kung Fu Panda" on further adventures, it's nice to see that he's actually growing up as the franchise moves forward. As an animation buff who was slow to warm up to the first Kung Fu Panda, I'm happy to note just the opposite is true on the sequel: Kung Fu Panda 2 is everything you need in a summertime flick. Bring the kids if you must, but you'll probably enjoy it more without them.
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