Kung Fu Panda 3

15 Mar

KungFuPanda3 (1)Three installments in, the novelty of Jack Black voicing a clumsy, dopey and constantly awe-stricken warrior panda who overcomes all his obvious deficiencies has worn thin. That’s a fact of any franchise that leans on the same conceit over and over. Still, there’s something eternally lovable about Po the “Dragon Warrior” that makes “Kung Fu Panda 3” more enjoyable (or easier to stomach) than most of its animation franchise contemporaries.

Although it’s four and a half years later, the same creative team behind “Kung Fu Panda 2” returns for the three-quel, assuring a level of quality in the animation and storytelling. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson brought a greater degree of visual splendor to “2,” and in tandem with longtime DreamWorks animator and story artist Alessandro Carloni, “3” has comparably engaging visuals and kinetic energy.

KungFuPanda3 (3)Writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger have been the mainstays of Po’s adventures since the beginning. Although they didn’t conceive the original 2008 story, they’ve scripted all three films alone, something that rarely can be said about animated films. They demonstrate in this latest chapter how well they know the hallmarks of the franchise they helped create and what the essential storytelling components are.

In this adventure, the valley comes under attack by Kai (J.K. Simmons), a warrior bull that had been trapped in the spirit realm by Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) – the wise turtle master of the previous films – for hundreds of years. Kai has mastered the ability to steal the chi of all things spirit and living, and stealing Oogway’s chi has given him the strength to cross over. Now, Po must quickly master the mystical power of chi if there’s any hope of stopping Kai.

KungFuPanda3 (2)Although the problems and conflicts of all the films have been episodic, “Kung Fu Panda 3” completes the circle of Po’s character arc. Po must constantly rise to the occasion despite improbable expectations being placed on his shoulders every time, and this film seems to complete his journey as Dragon Warrior. This thread gives the franchise a continuity that matters. Every lesson could be totally different in each film, but, as purveyors of children’s content, the DreamWorks team behind these films recognizes the importance of reinforcement. All of Po’s adventures tie back to the same ideas in different ways.

KungFuPanda3 (4)The film also wraps up the mystery of Po’s parentage as we quickly meet his birth father, Li (Bryan Cranston), who tells him pandas were the old masters of Chi and he can learn if he comes with him to the secret panda village where a host of new characters await. This is not good news as far as Po’s adoptive father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), is concerned, and the film explores some challenging family dynamics in a sensitive way.

The same kinds of jokes and slapstick from the previous movies persist in “Kung Fu Panda 3,” but they’re not noticeably flatter than they were the last time. The same plot devices have been recycled, but they’re no less engaging than they were the last time either. The same lessons can be learned from this film as the last couple times, but they’re no less meaningful. All this to say “Kung Fu Panda 3” is a “meets expectations” sequel, and as the third movie in a franchise eight years running, “meets expectations” is a compliment.

6/10

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