MOVIES

Jack Black Shines In This Withering Franchise

When the film begins, Po (Jack Black) is enjoying the same status quo from when we last saw him. He’s still the Dragon Warrior and still wielding the staff Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) gifted him from the spirit world. But when Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells him it’s time to find and train his successor so he can ascend to the higher role Oogway has chosen him for, Po wants to stay The Dragon Warrior. He would rather run around solving problems with his fists and enjoying the fame his standing brings him than start yet another journey leveling up into something new. Tai Lung (Ian McShane), the villain from the first film, returns, setting the stage for some kind of full circle revisiting Po’s origins. But all is not what it seems.

Instead, Po ends up on an adventure with Zhen (Awkwafina), a con artist fox who offers to help him find a shapeshifting sorcerer called The Chameleon (Viola Davis) in exchange for a reduced jail sentence. In typical “Kung Fu Panda” valuable lesson fashion, Po is forced to face the fact that he cannot keep reliving variations of the same journey forever. Not just because the viewers at home are starting to see the seams on this particular tapestry, but because people should never settle when they still have untapped potential to explore. 

Black remains the series’ greatest strength. His exuberance and malleability give Po an innate lovability that makes him easy to follow anywhere the franchise wants to take us. But his chemistry with a blaccent-less Awkwafina proves to be the real heart of the film, as her redemption arc serves to highlight how far Po has come since his first outing. Rather than struggle to find things for the rest of the Furious Five to do (and having to assemble even more big-name performers into the vocal booth), most of the supporting cast is sidelined this time out, save for a subplot with Po’s two dads Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) and Mr. Ping (James Hong). 

Of the acting talent on display, Davis gets to have the most fun. She taps into a scenery-chewing villainess role far more over the top than her usual live-action fare. It’s a testament to the balancing act these films do tonally that so many recognizable actors show up and deliver touching, memorable work rather than sounding like they’re here to collect a paycheck.

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