2008's Kung Fu Panda, one of those what-it-says-on-the-tin propositions, turned out to be a perfectly fine animated offering, overshadowed by the release of Pixar's WALL-E a few weeks later. This was DreamWorks doing a chopsocky movie with cute animals in the place of Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung, and one eye on tapping the expanding Asian market. (Disney had done the same thing ten years earlier, with their hand-drawn Mulan.) That first film predated the 3D revolution, and Kung Fu Panda 2, directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, arrives at a moment when audiences have begun something of a counter-revolution: box-office figures show that, in the U.S. last weekend, cinemagoers - finally fed up with hiked ticket prices - expressed a marked preference for the 2D versions of Panda 2 (and Pirates 4) wherever 3D versions were also offered.
This is a slight pity in KFP2's case, since its visuals appear to have been influenced by the work the DreamWorks animators did on last year's 3D success How to Train Your Dragon. Throughout, there's a noticeable attempt to replicate that film's dynamism of motion, how the stereoscopic camera can be used to add extra dimension, if you will, to the characters' fights and flights: Nelson will often shift perspective in the middle of a battle sequence to emphasise the hefty amount of carnage her ursine hero Po is racking up, or - as in one comic sequence late on, where his threats of retribution fall quite spectacularly on deaf ears - just how distanced he is from the real action. In one especially neat flourish, the camera adopts an overhead perspective to better observe the progress of Po and the rest of the Furious Five, clad in a Chinese dragon costume, as they rattle through the backstreets of one small village, recalling Pac-Man in the fabled arcade game. (Presumably, the sequence could be transferred shot-for-shot into any X-Box spin-off.)
What the film works towards, but a committee-produced sequel like this can't quite get at, is the Dragon movie's distinguishing emotion. The attempt at greater depth of feeling is signalled both by a creative-consultant credit for Guillermo del Toro, a master at making generic material affecting, and a narrative that sees Po engaged in the hunt for his true parentage - for the tubby warrior has finally reached an age where he's wondering why his notional father more closely resembles Big Bird than himself. (Po's dreams and childhood reminiscences are rendered in the hand-drawn anime style, perhaps inspired by Tarantino's Kill Bill.) The best material here is better than anything in the original, but there's still a lot of meaningless sound and fury that suggests the filmmakers were stuck for inspiration: discarded subplots include a pack of wolves pillaging villages for metal supplies, making this yet another burger chain-friendly feature that acts green, and sparking a set-piece in a smelting plant that can't help but recall a similar sequence in Toy Story 3.
And while it's admirable these films have resisted the tiring winks to grown-up movies other recent animations have made, elsewhere the KFP franchise has displayed a marked resistance to any humour other than the knockabout kind; with one eye on the overseas market, the other on very young viewers, it prefers cute over funny, and easily translated and consumed above both. As I remarked at the time of the first film, Jack Black is as muted as he's ever been voicing the title character: it's Po's body - his tummy, and his fists - that do all the talking for him. Otherwise, a supporting cast of funny people (Seth Rogen, David Cross, Jean-Claude Van Damme) get maybe one line in twenty to go on. As peacocking villain Lord Shen - who actually is a peacock, voiced by Gary Oldman - sneers at Po, "I find your stupidity mildly amusing", which is likely to be much the response of most accompanying adults. It's not bad, as such - and has the advantage of an easier platform to build from than Pixar's forthcoming Cars 2 - but it remains liable to be shown up by rival animators. The awesomeness of which Po speaks is here strictly serviceable, fleeting, functional.
Kung Fu Panda 2 opens nationwide tomorrow.