/

‘Kung Fu Panda 2′

Animated panda's future is far from endangered

by Kaori Shoji

So we’ve been told by news programs and eyewitnesses that the pandas at Ueno Zoo have been snacking and dining instead of diligently procreating, and now Tokyo’s best-loved cubs from China are too hefty to do much more than lie around and chew. Bad.

They’d do better to follow the example of another Panda named Po — who three years ago got out of the eating rut and became a martial arts master under the inspired tutelage of a small, elderly kung fu master fox named Master Shifu in “Kung Fu Panda.”

Not that this dramatic change in lifestyle altered the size of Po’s girth. If anything, Po in “Kung Fu Panda 2″ is even larger than the charming chap we saw back in 2008 — which confirms my suspicions that workouts don’t do jack for you (especially around the thighs). But I digress.

“Kung Fu Panda 2″ is a welcome sequel to one of DreamWorks’ most successful animation films, and fans of the original will be relieved to hear that it has been worth the wait — especially the 2-D version, as the 3-D effect will annoy animation purists wanting to bask in the gorgeous handiwork of some of the most talented artists working in the industry.

Po (voiced by Jack Black) is back, and this time in Harry Potter mode: saddled with an identity crisis, faced with a foe similar to Voldemort and angsted-out by issues regarding his real parents. Remember Po’s noodle-shop dad, who sported feathers and a long beak? There was no way the pair could have shared the same DNA, and Po finally comes to terms with the fact that though he loves his adopted dad dearly, it’s time to find out what happened to his birth parents.

This, as it happens, is scary stuff: They were killed by a genocidal peacock called Lord Shen (sizzlingly voiced by Gary Oldman). Like many murderous dictators, Shen is beset by insecurity and is extremely superstitious. Years back, a soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) told him to be aware of pandas, for they will be his downfall. He immediately went out and eliminated every panda in the land.

Po miraculously escaped Shen’s rampage and was brought up as a martial arts-loving foodie in the Valley of Peace. But now, Shen is up to his evil tricks again, scouring the land for iron scraps to build weapons of mass destruction. Po, along with kung fu colleagues otherwise known as the Furious Five (Tigress, Mantis, Monkey, Crane and Viper — voiced by Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, David Cross and Lucy Liu, respectively), decides to take on Lord Shen and protect the land against all odds, etc.

DreamWorks has been competing with Pixar in the CG animation arena, and “Kung Fu Panda 2″ offers very heavy artillery. The visuals are elegant without being too techy and the soaring catharsis of the fight scenes recall Studio Ghibli. Most importantly, the voice-over casting is brilliant: Black’s cholestorol-laden but butt-kicking Po is definitely one of the most lovable characters on the screens this summer.

The other treat is Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu: Deceptively miniscule and frail, Shifu has nerves of steel and commands legendary kung fu techniques, his character tempered by the timing of a standup comedian. As Po is fond of saying, he’s the “awesome-est” master of them all.

What works about the “Kung Fu Panda” films is Po’s ineptitude and the sheer weightiness of his unchanging body-mass index. No matter how many enemies he runs to the ground, the amount of aerial acrobatics he manages in the space of seven seconds and the state of Zen-like maturity he achieves through kung fu, his belly remains … full. Very full. In real life and in most movies, the fat kid is never the hero (though the bespectacled kid — thanks to Harry — has gone mainstream), and is usually burdened with an unfair share of worries and humiliation. Po is huge and flabby, but he turns around his lack of biceps and a washboard stomach and actually makes the excess lard work for him to full kung fu advantage. And in this sequel, his brain is sharper, his wisecracks are funnier and there’s a hint of something more than mere camaraderie going on between him and the career-oriented superwoman Tigress.

Lesson learned: Muscles and looks don’t comprise awesomeness. Awesomeness is the stuff of awesomeness. That and the 3-D stuff. We can’t forget that.