Short on surprises and innovative plotting though it may be, Kung Fu Panda 3, which reunites the all-star voice cast featured in the first two installments while adding the talents of Bryan Cranston, J.K. Simmons, and Kate Hudson, has more than enough cartoony martial arts action, heart, and laughs to make it worth your while to see, especially if you’re a fan of the series. In many ways, it brings the series and its main character full circle, giving viewers all new reasons to cheer while delivering more of what’s made the series an enduring favorite: high-flying action, eye-popping animation, and a wealth of jokes and gags built around all that weight those pandas carry around.
Just when Po (voiced once again by Jack Black), the fun-loving yet formidable panda warrior trained by the great Kung Fu master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) to be one of the Valley of Peace’s most powerful protectors, thinks he’s got everything as far as what life is going throw at him figured out, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Oogway’s friend and successor, hits the unlikely hero with an even more unlikely challenge: to take the step from student to teacher for his one-time idols, the Furious Five. Naturally, Po is wholly unnerved at the idea, almost as much as Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Tigress (Angelina Jolie Pitt) are. After just one chaotic day with Po leading the class, they have every reason to believe that their fears are well grounded; in fact, they’re all lucky to survive the class with all their limbs and skulls intact.
The warriors find a momentary diversion from the debate over Po’s future as a teacher with the arrival of his long-lost father, Li (Bryan Cranston). Father and son are overjoyed to be reunited, but they have little time to enjoy the reunion before the Valley is threatened by a new and powerful villain, Kai (J.K. Simmons). A spirit warrior whose powers grow as he absorbs the chi energy of martial arts masters he defeats, Kai’s march toward destroying the Jade Palace and all that Po and the Furious Five hold dear at first seems unstoppable. But as Shifu and the warriors discover, he can be beaten through a technique for mastering chi that has been lost for centuries, one that Oogway himself discovered in, of all places, a secret panda village high in the mountains far from the Valley of Peace. Li agrees to lead Po to the village — it’s his and Po’s home, as it turns out — but will they find what they need before Kai triumphs? It’s a race against time as the young Dragon Warrior comes face to face with others of his kind for the first time, and in so doing is forced to accept that the time has come for him to be more than just a butt-kicking kung fu hero of awesomeness.
Without a doubt, Kung Fu Panda 3 first and foremost benefits from the familiarity audiences should have with the series and the characters by this point. It’s been eight years since the first installment was a surprise summer hit, and since then the franchise has spawned both theatrical sequels and a TV series spin-off. What also helps is the consistency of visual style and tone throughout all those properties — parents and kids know exactly what they’re going to get when they go see a Kung Fu Panda film: slacker and jiggly belly jokes, lots of Jack Black/Po saying “Whoa!”, and bright, colorfully animated high-speed action and adventure. It’s a winning formula that, to the credit of this particular production, cast and crew do not simply fall back on and recycle.
Instead, writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who have handled screenwriting duties for all three big screen Panda adventures, dare to venture into some surprisingly sophisticated thematic territory. It’s not often, after all, that you find a family-friendly animated action film exploring such complex concepts as the possible emotional impact the return of a biological parent can have on an adoptive family unit, how that can affect one’s sense of identity, just to name one challenging place the writers choose to take this story. It’s a credit to Aibel and Berger, the faith they display in the ability of Western audiences to be able to handle such material as they continue to develop their characters in meaningful and organic ways. Does the actual plot of the film deliver any truly shocking turns or twists? Of course not — older kids and parents will know exactly where this one’s going pretty much from the start. But that doesn’t take much away from the fun the movie delivers along the way.
One real possibility for disappointment out there for audiences and fans of the Kung Fu Panda series in Kung Fu Panda 3 may be the relative lack of screen time and substantive participation in the story the film allots to the star-studded supporting cast. While the whole gang is back together, much of the Furious Five aren’t a whole lot to do or say here, as the focus is shifted toward Po’s interaction with the newly introduced characters. From that group, the standouts are Cranston and Simmons, two performers recently recognized for their considerable talents with Oscar nominations for heavier fare, but who arguably built their early careers thanks to comedic roles. To be fair, considering the limited running time usually imposed on Western animated films and the nuanced ideas and themes the film wishes to develop, less face time for the familiar supporting characters is a necessity. But as the film’s story unfolds, it’s hard not to wish there might have been more involvement for characters voiced by such comedic talents as Rogen, Cross, and Jackie Chan.
But all in all, there’s a whole lot more to like than dislike in Kung Fu Panda 3. It’s bright, energetic, and genuinely heartwarming fun that kids no doubt will want to watch over and over again, so parents, when you budget for this particular trip to the movies, be sure and put aside a few bucks to pay for the home digital release when it becomes available, too.
Kung Fu Panda 3
Starring the voice talents of Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie Pitt, J.K. Simmons, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Kate Hudson, and James Hong. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni.
Running Time: 101 minutes
Rated PG for martial arts action and some mild rude humor.