There's an ancient Chinese saying, often attributed to Confucius though its provenance probably is Zhuangzi: "The sequel is never as good as the original."
And while this certainly holds true for Kung Fu Panda 2 - which takes the first film's goofy notion that a panda bear can be the son of a goose and goes about explaining said relationship with a giant vat of sticky sentiment - the follow-up to DreamWorks' 2008 hit is still more than a cut above the usual family fare.
Fast and a little furious, the further adventures of Po (the voice of Jack Black) combine tumbling chopsocky with a takeout container's worth of wisecracks and kernels of koan. The computer animation, referencing traditional Chinese painting - snowy mountains, craggy cliffs, stately temples, majestic trees - is vividly detailed and almost on a par with the original. And if you're watching in 3-D, watch out for those projectile dumplings!
As Kung Fu Panda 2 gets under way, our roly-poly and improbable martial-arts hero finds his tiny Yoda-like master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), going through balletic tai chi maneuvers and talking about "inner peace." But this transcendental teaching moment is rudely interrupted by a horde of warrior wolves on a mission of pillage for their despotic boss, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), an albino peacock bent on ruling the land.
Po and his "Furious Five" partners, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Monkey (Jackie Chan), spring into action, and the action doesn't take much of a break for the duration. In fact, that's one of the movie's problems: With the story of Po's origin dispensed with in the inaugural 'toon, the writers have fallen back on typical evil villainy business. "China will be mine!" Shen cackles, and then, fisticuffs and flying feats of foot boxing ensue. Po, the Dragon Warrior of the Valley of Peace, must grapple with a haunting memory from his childhood in order to summon the strength to do battle with this nefarious - and mightily armed - antagonist.
Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who oversaw the elegant title sequences from the first film, likewise gives Kung Fu Panda 2's series of flashbacks a different look, harking back to Chinese shadow puppetry and delicate watercolors. With its mix of vibrant CG and classical elements, the movie dazzles. There are darker, scarier sequences (there were more than a few wails of woe from younger viewers at a prerelease screening this week) as the armored wolves skulk through the night, as teeth and fangs are bared and fires cast ominous shadows on the street. And Po, stymied by hazily traumatic memories, looks in danger of falling victim to the malevolent Shen.
But no worries. As the wise Shifu counsels: "Forget the past. The only thing that matters is what you choose to become."
Kung Fu Panda 2 clearly chooses to become a blockbuster.