The runaway hit Kung Fu Panda delivered on its market-savvy premise: a cute, cuddly bear for girls, martial arts for boys, and enough of a dim-sum sampler of Chinese references to make it a record-breaking smash in China. The first film also had the advantage of being good, goofy, fun: With Tex Avery–inspired, bouncy-ball animation, Po, the blubbery, roundhousing hero, ricocheted across the screen from one speedy slapstick sequence to the next, assisted enormously by the elastic voice of exaggerated eyebrow-archer Jack Black. Befitting such a gluttonous hero, this spazzy sequel delivers more heaping servings of the same.
The new film begins where the first left off: Having saved the land, Po is a celebrity, the biggest thing to happen to his species since YouTube uploaded “Sneezing Baby Panda.” And fame, of course, is not enough. Po’s Kung Fu instructor informs him he needs to find inner peace, which entails finding his real parents. You see, like Steve Martin in The Jerk, goofy Po is shocked to find that the animal he presumed to be his father, a goose, is not, in fact, his genetic parent. His search instigates traumatic memories, beginning with the day he was abandoned in a radish crate outside the goose’s noodle shop. It gets weird: In one fever dream sequence, Po imagines being bludgeoned and beaten by a radish his parents love more than their own son: What, he wonders, if they traded up? What if they loved the radish more than they loved him?
The film veers from silly to serious: One minute, Po is bouncing bad guys off his belly like tennis balls on a tom-tom; the next we’re flashing back to his baroque origin story. Po discovers that the evil peacock Lord Shen (voiced disturbingly by Gary Oldman), fearing a prophecy, didn’t just attempt to murder Po’s parents, he embarked on a terrifying genocidal purge of all the pandas on Earth. Po is led to believe that he may be the very last panda living — an orphan abandoned after his parents were mercilessly slaughtered.
The darker events are borderline inappropriate — more in keeping with the origins of a superhero, like Batman or Spider-Man. But it’s a beautifully animated film, and overall a blast. In fact, the spectacular last battle between the peacock’s forces and the panda’s merry band of pranksters is so fast and funny, the eradication of a species is almost forgotten! And, of course, that’s not the case: (Spoiler!) Perhaps regretting this dark direction, an on-second-thought coda reveals that Po is not the last living panda. So enjoy without guilt!