Hollywood's giant panda is in no danger of extinction.
The second in DreamWorks's planned six-film Kung Fu Panda series arrives in theatres today, and everything TV ads say about improved fabric softener is true of the KFP sequel: Kung Fu Panda 2 is fluffier, more huggably soft than the 2008 original.
Now in 3-D, the animated family film picks up where Kung Fu Panda left off. Roly-poly Po (voiced by Jack Black) returns, an accredited Dragon Warrior at last, assisted by a back-up band, the Furious Five, with more hand jive than the Temptations.
For the uninitiated, the kung fu quintet includes Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross). Except this time out, Po isn't quite the slapstick blunderer of old. He's in a mellow place, searching for his "inner peace" by seeking the truth about his biological parents, while being extra careful not to hurt the feelings of his adoptive dad, Ping (James Hong) a silly and perpetually nervous goose.
Po even makes an effort to come spiritually close to the previously aloof and impenetrable Tigress. Spoiler alert! They hug. Twice.
At the same time, this is a children's adventure film, so there is conflict and a skulking villain: a vain peacock (Gary Oldman) with a fancy, booming cannon and a fierce gang of followers who hope to destroy kung fu. After which, as our designated evildoer puts it, cackling, "China will be mine."
And yes, the film boasts a few rowdy action scenes that take advantage of 3-D technology - soaring, sweeping superheroes and whizzing cannonballs that seem about to put a new part in your hair.
Still, Kung Fu Panda 2 seems overly protective of its young audience. After the first big battle, where Po and the Furious Five go up against what look like the lounge lizards from the Star Wars bar scene, the film seeks refuge in a quiet Chinese village populated entirely by whiskered bunnies and eraser-pink piglets.
There, there now, nothing to be afraid of, rookie director Jennifer Yuh Nelson reassures little ones in the crowd.
Unfortunately, there isn't much to get amused or excited by here either. Oldman's peacock villain, Lord Shen, has lots of pigment, but little colour. Po and the Furious Five don't enjoy the same boisterous camaraderie as before. There just isn't the same zingy rapport. Seth Rogen's praying mantis and Jackie Chan's monkey have no more than a dozen lines between them.
Even Jack Black's Po is more subdued. At times, his spiritual quest for Inner Peace seems to have hit him like a tranquilizer dart.
There are compensations, to be sure. The animated picture's quiet travelogue interludes - rain playing on a thatched hut alongside a drowsy river, the fading sun setting fire to the horizon - are glorious to behold. And the film's end credits, a Chinese flipping lantern trick accompanied by faster-faster music, will send the wee ones home dizzy and content.
But the kinder, gentler Kung Fu Panda 2 will surely try the patience of older children and fun-seeking parents. Here's hoping that the next time out, Jack Black's Po discovers rock and roll. Or that he figures out hugging Angelina Jolie's Tigress is good for more than the soul.
Kung Fu Panda 2
- Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson
- Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger
- Featuring the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu, James Hong, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Jackie Chan
- Classification: PG