Po, the kung-fu master panda (Jack Black), has everything he hoped for in the first movie. He has the martial arts skills to protect and impress the community and he is accepted as a teammate by the greatest champions in China. But he has not yet found inner peace, and that will require an even greater struggle.
Po has not wanted to think about the fact that his father is not a panda, until a glimpse of an all-but-forgotten insignia on an enemy unlocks some memories so painful Po does not want to think about. But a new villain (Gary Oldman as the peacock Lord Shen) is the most vicious Po has faced, and he cannot be defeated unless Po understands the tragedy that links them together. He cannot fight his memories and his adversaries at the same time. Po must make peace with his past to move on to the future.
As with the first one, this film combines exquisite, Asian-influenced design and a story that includes the classic heroic themes and gentle humor. The action sequences are exciting, especially a sensational scene with our heroes hiding out in a dragon costume. Before the peril gets too tense, there is always a laugh to remind us that we are safe with Po. “Ah,” he says, walking into battle, “my old enemy — stairs!”
It has some nice parallels — Po and Lord Shen were both given up by their parents, for different reasons. And both make use of fight techniques that can be used for good or evil. The same gunpowder that creates inspiring firework displays can be weaponized into something that could mean the end of kung fu. Po fights for freedom and for the discipline and skill of martial arts itself.
It opens with some background, beautifully told with traditional shadow puppets. Po’s existential crisis is handled deftly, with the reassuring message that even when the beginning of our story is not happy, that does not have to control who we are.
Parents should know that this film has extended action sequences with characters in peril, martial arts, threats, fire, discussions of parents sending children away (in one case, for bad behavior), issues of adoption and a sense of abandonment or loss, a metaphoric ethnic cleansing, and some potty humor. There is a reassuring coda that leaves the door open for a reunion. The praying mantis mentions twice that the females bite off the males’ heads.
Family discussion: Why didn’t Po ask about his past earlier? What was the biggest obstacle he had to overcome? Why did Lord Shen think that his plan would make him feel better? What would it be like if wars were fought with kung fu today? What is “hard style” and is it “your thing?”
If you like this, try: the first “Kung Fu Panda” and the “Ice Age” series