The return of Po, Jack Black’s ursine martial arts messiah from 2008’s wonderfully rambunctious yet wistful cartoon Kung Fu Panda, is as welcome as the return of a dear friend. We’re happy to see, right off the bat in the follow up Kung Fu Panda 2, that after three years of ass kicking as China’s much prophesized Dragon Warrior, Po still trains hard by stuffing copious vegetable dumplings into his bulging snout. A hefty tub of good-natured id, Po is driven by his animalistic impulse to gorge his insatiable belly. But that belly, a rotund hillock of black and white fur, is, and always was, the source of Po’s power (he is the Kung Fu Panda after all). And when he belly-flopped the whiskers off Thai Lung, the feline antagonist from the original film, it was an ecstatic moment of the Neo-Stopping-Bullets variety. For the creators of this animated action sequel to forget what made Po such an audacious hero the first time around, would be a disservice to the audience as well as the character.
Luckily, they didn’t. Since going from a daydreaming noodle shop assistant to an established master of fast-hands weaponry, Po’s head has stayed surprisingly small (especially for a panda). And what makes him such a lovable underdog, even still, is that he is, really, just a hardcore fanboy living in his own action-movie reverie, fighting alongside his boyhood idols: The Furious Five. Even while he’s leading The Five – Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Crane, Mantis, Monkey, etc. – on an adventure to stop a gun-toting, genocidal peacock named Shen from destroying China with an arsenal of cannonry, Po can’t help gushing, slow-mo and mid-kick, over the sheer awesomeness of his dream come true. It taps into the transient wonder of childhood; Po, wide-eyed and grinning in a stupor, wears the same expression a kid might if he was catching a hail-mary from Peyton Manning or fielding grounders with Derek Jeter. Without the wonderfully conceived character of Po, the film is merely spectacle, yet with him, it’s exuberant animated jubilation.
Kung Fu Panda 2’s Saturday-morning-cartoon plotting isn’t its strongest asset, however. Shen uses his firearms to try and eradicate kung fu and so Po, plus his crew, must go and inflict their own brand of Hi-Ya! gun-control. (Who says kid’s movies can’t tackle big issues?). Before he can do that, Po must find inner peace, which involves learning the truth about how he came to be adopted by his noodle-loving father goose. Like the first film, Kung Fu Panda 2 is fleet and absurdly well animated. Unlike the first film, its tone is sappy rather than spiritual. The original turned the line, “There is no secret ingredient” into a pregnant revelation. The sequel doesn’t reach that level of majesty. Yet Po, the film’s raucous centerpiece, overpowers the obvious flaws with utter force of personality. And since Kung Fu Panda 2 felt more like a mere episode than a fully rounded story, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next installment in this serial of tales about an anthropomorphized panda with a belly like an exercise ball and the mirthful spirit of a child at play.