Kung Fu Panda 2
Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Starring:  Jack Black,
Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman, Dustin Hoffman
Rated PG for sequences
of martial arts, action and
mild violence
1 hr. 35 mins.

I’m not a big fan of sequels. I mean, let’s face it. Once you’ve found that certain movie magic and used it up — lightning in a bottle, so to speak — what are the odds of recapturing it?

Fortunately for Kung Fu Panda 2, the Dreamworks panda crew found their inspiration in a trip they took to China to visit with — what else — pandas. Big pandas, baby pandas, pandas climbing, pandas eating, pandas being pandas. The result is a sequel that remains fresh and very funny.

Master Po (Jack Black) is now a member of the Furious Five, but, while he may be a kung fu master, he’s still trying to learn the art of being a dragon warrior. Let’s just say he has some growing up to do. A warrior yes, but also someone who likes to stuff bean buns in his mouth (40 at the last count) and pester Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).

Enter the film’s new villain, a peacock named Lord Shen (Gary Oldman). Shen’s cruelty and aggression as a young peacock led him to be exiled from Gongmen City by his emperor parents. Now, years later, he has returned home and is intent on inventing a fireworks weapon that can blast its way through just about anything, especially kung fu masters.

The twist in this movie is that Shen has a direct connection to Po. In fact, he holds the key to Po’s true identity. So, as Po and the Furious Five trek toward Gongmen City to fight Shen, the film explores Po’s background and ties it closely to the story’s final act.

Panda 2 is lucky to return most of its original talent: not only the voices of the Furious Five, but also director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (who helped develop the art for the previous Panda) and writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger.

Together, they’ve maintained the integrity of the original, and successfully added new story lines.

Also carried over from the previous Panda is the film’s visual style, which continues to display an astonishing palette of colors inspired by its Chinese setting. It’s all in the details, from the shapes of the trees and flowers to the numerous kung fu movements and the wonderful facial expressions. The result is a work of art.

The real fun, however, is in the actors’ voiceovers, especially Jack Black. Black’s manic onscreen gyrations are sometimes annoying, but Black as Po the Panda feels like a hand in a well-fit glove. Black is Po and Po is Black. They may actually be one and the same bear.

In addition, Oldman speaking as Shen is the same Oldman who is delicious in some of his other villainous roles, like Carnegie in Book of Eli. Only this time it’s his voice that conveys the smooth sound of larceny.

The large cast of animals also provides great comic support, particularly Angelina Jolie as Tigress, Michelle Yeoh as Soothsayer and James Hong as Po’s adopted father, Mr. Ping.

But Panda 2 is more than just animation and adventure. The producers have risked adding a layer of moral darkness — the devastation of genocide, the pain of losing a family, the danger of ambition, weapons and war. All of this is explored, even as the film maintains its great sense of comic timing.

So sequel, schmequel. Don’t be the same pessimist I was. Take the panda plunge. I doubt you’ll find any drop-off in film magic. You might even think 2 is better than 1 because of the story’s added depth.