Visually dazzling and outrageously funny, DreamWorks Animation’s hit franchise shows no signs of petering out. With this third entry, Kung Fu Panda 3 allows audiences to simply marinate in the pleasures that its memorable roster of characters produce. Jack Black’s Po is as lovably buffoonish as ever, while the elite Furious Five – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross) – all manage to make the most of their fleeting spotlight moments. Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu continues to lack originality, serving as a hybrid of so many different “Kung Fu Master” archetypes across cinema that he’s absent of any remarkable personality of his own. Shifu also doesn’t hold a candle to the spiritually high-as-a-kite Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), a zen master with grandfatherly patience and the utmost confidence in Po’s unconventional brand of heroism.
Continuing almost immediately where the last film left off (we had to wait five long years for the cliffhanger of Po’s reemerging past to resolve itself!), we witness an epic battle in the Spirit Realm between Oogway and Kai (J.K. Simmons), a former Minotaur warrior who plots vengeance on the ancient turtle master and any successors of Oogway’s in the mortal world. Speaking of the realm we all occupy, for once family drama – not bloodthirsty trespassers – invades the serene Valley of Peace, home of Po, the five warriors and the renowned Jade Palace. During a festive display of bravado at Mr. Ping’s (James Hong) dumplings restaurant, a rare but not unfamiliar breed of bear crashes the party in search of his long-lost son. Yes, tissues out please, because it’s the tear-jerking moment we’ve all been anxiously anticipating. Played by an uncharacteristically subdued Bryan Cranston, Li unsurprisingly sends emotional shock waves through the population upon finally reuniting with his son, Po.
Fortunately for us and unfortunately for the Valley, two pandas are even more rowdy and chaotic than one. When panda meets panda, there is no priceless antique left to admire since almost everything gets shattered past the point of recovery. To make matters worse, Kai manages to escape from the spirit world with medallions that store the chi (soul/energy/The Force, if you will) of each warrior of China encountered. The only remaining chi to acquire belongs to our motley band of heroes guarding the Valley of Peace, which means Po and the gang are back on evildoer watch. Li convinces Po that the two must travel to a hidden village buried deep in the mountains where the last vestiges of panda bear remain. Li emphasizes to Po that only by surrounding himself with his panda brethren can their primordial healing powers be accessed: the ability to summon chi from living organisms.
Like its predecessors, Kung Fu Panda 3’s plot is more involving than meets the eye, though the same cannot be said for its blasé villain. Kai is, for lack of a deeper description, a video game boss holstering a weapon that’s nearly identical to that of God of War’s Kratos. Let me tell you, the double-chained blades are far less fearsome in a kid-friendly setting compared to what I’m used to witnessing when Kratos goes on a full Greek rampage. In all fairness, it would be nearly impossible for scribes Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger to outdo the supremely evil Lord Shen, the scariest bird to ever grace the screen since Hitchcock’s aptly titled The Birds. Compared to the Machiavellian-esque Shen, Kai is about as threatening as gum stuck to Po’s claw.
The emotional meat of this film comes from the father-father-son bond between Po, his goose father Mr. Ping and biological father, Li. I stand corrected if I’m wrong, but same-sex parenting has never been explored this deeply in an animated feature before. This motif is both powerful and crucial in shaping a child’s acceptance of the world at a very impressionable age. Kung Fu Panda 3 laudably reminds audiences on multiple occasions that, yes, Po has two “dads” just in case conservative parents thought they misheard such groundbreaking dialogue the first time. How downright bold and applaud-worthy for the entire studio – bravo! Moreover, James Hong once again proves he is one of the best voice actors in the business, providing such nuance to Mr. Ping that you’ll find yourself wanting to wrap him in a giant panda hug while fighting off laughter.
Speaking of those cuddly-looking bears, Po remains among Jack Black’s best roles, especially in this third entry since Po’s comedic antics are largely relegated to the film’s first half, while the latter half concerns itself with Po’s serious commitment to all he holds dear. Just when you think all Po can offer cinema is the iconic term, “Skadoosh,” Black reminds us how vital he is in showing us that the only “hero” standard one should be held to is their own best self. Po is now giving fellow DreamWorks protagonist, Shrek, a run for his money as most valuable animated lead. Give this franchise two or three more films and I guarantee you, most kids will be asking, “Shrek…who?”
A flurry of vibrant colors and exquisitely meticulous animation, Kung Fu Panda 3 is charming, uproarious and only slightly less impactful than its predecessors. A few kinks in characterization hold back what’s likely going to be one of the best animated films of 2016, though in terms of social thematics, Kung Fu Panda 3 is light years ahead of its competition. Alongside directorial collaborator, Alessandro Carloni, Jennifer Yuh Nelson is destined to dominate the box office and break more records for female directors in Hollywood. Heartfelt, relevant and still able to master a universal sense of humor, Kung Fu Panda 3 is a tremendous start to the new year in film.
Distributed by 20th Century Fox, DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 3 hits theaters nationwide this Friday, January 29th. Be sure to view the trailer below!