Who's In It: The voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen, Gary Oldman, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Michelle Yeoh, Dennis Haysbert, Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Victor Garber, James Hong
The Basics: When you're the Dragon Warrior, someone's always coming along to challenge you with their unstoppable fighting technique. And so it is with Po (Black), this time around facing a particularly evil, slow-burning peacock (Oldman) who won't be content until he's conquered China and eradicated all kung fu from the land. With the help of his lighting-fast animal buddies The Furious Five, Po has to embark on another hero's journey (apparently the first one didn't fully take, so call it a do-over) and make the bad bird taste his panda wrath.
What's The Deal: It's a Hollywood rule that the sequel involves some re-telling of the first story. We'd all be a lot better off if that weren't the case, but it is so there you go. Po has to find the warrior within all over again even if you didn't especially need to see him do that. But the mark of a cool sequel worth watching and recommending comes in the surprises that pop up along the old, familiar way. Without sacrificing the original's humor--Po's bumbling fatness is still a gentle joke and the dialogue accounts for a lot of the comedy rather than childlike bonks to the skull--it cranks up the martial arts action and delivers a big visual punch, even if you aren't springing the extra ticket dollars for the 3D option. It also takes you deeper into Po's past and his need to know where he comes from without getting too overwrought and syrupy about it. And the fact that I could write that last sentence without cringing is evidence that the movie pulls that off really well. Let the inevitable third chapter start production. In fact, just cancel that next Ice Age movie and put all those people to work on it instead.
New Jack Black Rule I Made Up While Watching It: He should make only animated features or strangely serious black comedies like Margot at the Wedding from now on. Po is his coolest character and his most emotionally connected, which I think has something to do with his inability to ditch the crazy-eyes when he's involved in live-action comedy. And mostly I just never want to watch something like Gulliver's Travels ever again.
MVP: Gary Oldman. The cartoon villain with the snooty, fey British accent is way past its sell-by date. In fact, it's now officially offensive to all snooty-and-fey-voiced British guys in the world. But Oldman takes this potential for irritation and turns down the volume in a way that paradoxically amps up how evil and complex his character actually is. And his character is, I need to remind you, a peacock. That's acting.
What It Really Whet My Appetite For: A new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. He's a voice here and, after watching this (and the conceptually interesting but not amazingly executed film JCVD where he played himself but wasn't really allowed to crack skulls) I just want a really cool hard R-rated kickboxing movie where he gets to waste a lot of bad dudes.