‘Panda’: All gut, and glory

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Despite a darker tone, Po’s fists of furry fury are just as engaging in “Kung Fu Panda 2,” a solid product from DreamWorks Animation, which has been milking its cash cow… or ogre, rather, churning out increasingly inferior “Shrek” sequels.

DreamWorks nailed it last year with one of the year’s best animated films, “How to Teain Your Dragon.” But in the sequel department, its subsequent “Shrek” and “Madagascar” films dropped precipitously in quality.

But “Panda” not only sustains the original’s energy, it faithfully broadens the backstory of its characters with care and compassion. It’s also the perfect vehicle for star Jack Black, whose live-action shtick is long past its expiration date, but fits snugly within the body of a roly-poly pixelated panda.

Po is now a master, enlisting his gang of motley martial artists to defend their homeland. Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross), Snake (Lucy Liu), and Monkey (Jackie Chan) are battle-ready and still under the guidance of Master Shifu ( Dustin Hoffman).

Their nemesis is peacock Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman) a feathered foe that has manipulated the dark power of fireworks that he threatens to shower down on Po’s village. Shen’s arrival also sparks questions of Po’s adoptive past and how he came into the loving arms of his father Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong).

The struggle with sense of self throws the already awkward Po even more off balance, and the film’s complexity only serves to strengthen its storytelling. But even though it opts for heavier drama, it’s not at the expense of action and mirth. There may be a few less gut-busters, but their absence is needed to add heft to Po’s poignant personal journey.

Technically, the film is a beaut. Fireworks are not merely a plot device, but are seen throughout, with colors exploding, and action staged like a lit fuse by director Jennifer Yuh. It is also a film that benefits greatly in its 3-D format, using it not as a gimmick, but weaving it fluidly into the flick.

Every voice dutifully fills its animated counterpart with life, but special mention must be given to Hong as Po’s adoptive dad. Each scene of his is balanced with the perfect amount of paternal pride and panic as his son takes journeys both externally and within himself. It is a heartbreaking vocal performance.

And while the end rather expectedly sets up for another outing, it is one that is met with less trepidation now that the sequel stands on such strong legs. It’s no propaganda to call this a stellar, proper “Panda.”

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