Filmmakers and story-tellers, especially the ones specifically targeting adolescent and pre-adolescent boys, love telling coming of age stories. They speak to self-belief and hidden power, making them potent vehicles for hanging personal power fantasy off of, and they have built in plot progression. But what happens next, after the main character has come of age? In real life they get older, maybe have a family, and eventually die, but that's a much less potent vehicle for fantasy for the young. So if that's not going to work for you, what do you make a coming-of-age sequel about? What happens next?
That's the question facing Po (Jack Black). He's vanquished his destined foe and assumed his role as the Dragon Warrior(™), officially joining the ranks of the awesome, so what next? What next turns out to be the China conquering plans of the mad Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), fueled by the invention of gun powder and heavy artillery, a power so great even Kung Fu might not be enough to stand against it.
But at its heart, "Kung Fu Panda 2" is ultimately about Po finding out who he is, which is odd because I'm pretty sure that's what "Kung Fu Panda 1" was about as well, and that the question had been settled. Apparently not when the sigil's on Lord Shen's troops awaken long buried memories inside Po, memories like the fact that his father the goose (James Hong) is not his father and something horrible drove him from his biological parents.
There's more going on than just that as Po and Furious Five must face questions about liberating themselves from the past in order to embrace the future, both as individuals facing uncomfortable truths and as a nation facing the dawn of modern warfare.
In fact there's quite a bit going on in "Kung Fu Panda 2" as director Jennifer Yuh Nelson juggles, juggles, juggles from beginning to end, trying to distract us from noticing that we haven't moved too much from the first film.
The downside of all of that oscillation is that things inevitably get lost along the way. The tight characterization which was so well integrated into the plot of the original is largely absent here as many characters come along for the ride but offer little to it. Dustin Hoffman's irascible Master Sifu is almost entirely absent and the Furious Five, though physically present throughout are nearly as invisible beyond the odd one liner. Only Tigress (Angelina Jolie) gets any real screentime but with her enmity to Po dealt with, she has little to do except help advance his story. There are almost no supporting characters, just props for Po.
The only real exceptions are James Hong and Gary Oldman. While Po's father was more of a one off joke in the first film, the question of his heritage here brings Mr. Ping to the forefront despite having just a few minutes of screen time. The amount of animation Hong and the animators are able to get out of him staggering and his scenes with Po create the half of the core that make the film work.
The other half comes from Gary Oldman as the villainous Lord Shen, whom he imbues with a surprising amount of pathos and just the right comic flare to keep situations light even when they are at their most dire.
Bouncing in-between the two is Black, who manages the difficult task of pulling out Po's comedic oafishness while still making him believable as kung fu master as well. He doesn't have Oldman's chops, which makes some of the more difficult scenes a little weak, but he's been doing this sort of comedy for a long time and he can almost do it in his sleep now.
Despite the lack of forward momentum or the level of characterization that made the first "Kung Fu Panda" so enjoyable, director Jennifer Yuh Nelson still knows how to make a charming kids adventure movie. It doesn't take any chances, at all, but excellent voice acting and a lot of charm make up for what has been lost between sequels. Not entirely but enough that "Kung Fu Panda 2" won't be a waste of your time.