Meta master Charlie Kaufman seemed an odd-duck choice to polish summer entertainment like Kung Fu Panda 2. And no, Po the Panda doesn’t enter a crawlspace, commandeer Shrek’s brain and get dumped on the Road to El Dorado.
But in Kung Fu Panda 2 — an effervescent, joyous and weighty sequel that touchingly teases at further efforts — DreamWorks Animation ups its creative ante on Pixar. (Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro is also a consultant here.) Plus, the eye-popping animation looks immaculate on one of 2011’s most beautiful Blu-rays.
Panda 2 finds portly, jovial Po (voiced by Jack Black) emboldened and eager in his quest for kung fu awesomeness. But although he’s now a permanent fixture beside his fighting friends in the Furious Five, a calming sensation of inner peace eludes him. (Like its predecessor, Panda 2 smartly embraces the many improvements that martial arts instruction can make in one’s life.)
Finding that peace seems especially problematic once Po flashes back to a traumatic event linked to the panda parents he’s never known. His past is tragically intertwined with a proud, dangerous peacock named Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman). And as Shen builds a barrage of weapons to bring China to its knees, Po must move past his anxiety to save the day.
To reveal their respective destinies, Shen is willing to kill and Po, however reluctantly, is willing to die. Yes, it’s heady stuff, as Po at times feels like a jollier, animated version of Neo. But Panda 2 is hardly something to keep from the kids or anyone who admires the inner journey inherent to great martial arts adventures.
Po’s tenacity remains inspiring, Oldman mines the many complexities contained within Shen’s feathers, and the film’s message is one all ages can take to heart: Coming to terms with something troubling — not burying it — is a true path to peacefulness.
Of course, returning screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger and director Jennifer Yuh Nelson ensures the film simultaneously offers great, giggly fun.
A dragon-dance sequence plays out like Pac-Man with multiple payoffs. Check out the splits from a chop-socky crocodile voiced by Jean-Claude van Damme. James Hong reprises his role as Po’s adoptive goose father, Mr. Ping, with more empathy and, of course, noodle salesmanship. And Po finds time amid fighting to declare his love for his pals.
Panda 2‘s only real misstep is sacrificing Po’s time alongside Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman). Otherwise, it’s a cinematic recipe of the hardcore and the heartfelt that, in the hands of the iron chefs DreamWorks has employed to make it, is easy for any age to eat up.
Kung Fu Panda 2 comes to Blu-ray with an immaculate 1080p transfer — one in which every scene is suffused with stunning detail and color. Greens and reds pop from Mr. Ping’s chopping board, and the film’s many fireworks explode with kaleidoscopic delight. And there is nuance in every environment, whether it’s a sun-dappled afternoon at Mr. Ping’s noodle shop, a predawn boat ride or the murky depths of Lord Shen’s foundries.
The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 Surround Sound track is very much the visual’s equal. Shen’s tailfeathers swoop through the soundfield, flames subtly crackle in the surround speakers and the subwoofer gets a thorough workout.
Extras include Secrets of the Masters, a short-film sidebar; a feature-length commentary with director Yuh Nelson and other filmmakers; a picture-in-picture commentary; about four minutes of deleted scenes introduced by Nelson; a trivia track; three featurettes; interactive games; a basic Chinese tutorial; a Nickelodeon TV program featuring Po and friends; a digital copy; and much more.