A film review by Craig J. Koban February 8, 2016


2016, PG, 95 mins.


Jack Black as Po (voice)  /  Angelina Jolie as Tigress (voice)  /  Dustin Hoffman as Shifu (voice)  Jackie Chan as Monkey (voice)  /  Seth Rogen as Mantis (voice)  /  Lucy Liu as Viper (voice)  /  David Cross as Crane (voice)  /  James Hong as Mr. Ping (voice)  /  Bryan Cranston as Li (voice)  /  Kate Hudson as Mei Mei (voice)  /  J.K. Simmons as Kai (voice)

Directed by Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carloni  /  Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger


I have to be honest here: I didn’t think that there could possibly be three delectably satisfying films about a relatively simplistic, one-joke premise involving an animal – in this case, yes, a panda – that knows kung fu. 

Yet, the makers behind Dreamworks’ KUNG FU PANDA series have managed to take the adventures of Po and company and somehow maintained a decent amount of qualitative momentum three films in…and it certainly shows in KUNG FU PANDA 3, the potential last film in the series.  Featuring a menagerie of likeable – and some dislikeable – characters, an epic sweep not typically found in most animated fare, fully engaged performances, and an overall visual sheen that does justice and justifies its 3D presentation, KUNG FU PANDA 3 is a rare third film in a series that joyously and confidently carries on the story threads of its predecessors without coming off as tired and stale.  

This new entry – coming five long years after the first sequel in 2011 – quickly introduces us to a vile and despotic new antagonist in Kai (voiced by a scenery chewing J.K. Simmons), a bull-like monstrosity that has conquered much of the sprit world and – gasp! – has managed to capture and harness the Chi life force of every major kung fu legend, including Po’s former master Oogway (Randall Duk-Kim).  Of course, in pure villainous form, Kai wishes to transport himself back to the land of the corporeal and take the remaining Chi energy from the land’s other martial artists, which includes Po himself (Jack Black), his sensei Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and the rest of his clan.  Before this occurs, though, Shifu has given Po a new mission as a master trainer, but Po is predictably inept at embarking on such a quest.  Things become really complicated for Po with the appearance of his biological father Li (voiced with rich and kindly enthusiasm by Bryan Cranston), who wants to bring his long lost son back to his home world. 



Po seems initially guarded at first, seeing as he has great difficulty believing Li’s revelation that he is his father.  Despite being…well…a panda and biologically and emotionally similar to Li in everyway possible (not to mention that Po’s adopted father Ping is a stork). Po remains momentarily skeptical regarding Li's claims.   Yet, obvious common sense prevails and Po begrudgingly decides to journey back to his father’s home panda village, with Li promising to teach him special panda abilities that will help him thwart any future assault by Kai and his spiritual army.  Unfortunately, Li’s obligations and promises prove to be hollow, and when it appears that Kai has overcome both Master Shifu and his friends, it’s up to Po to mount an improbable defensive utilizing the villagers that have no fundamentally understanding of kung fu whatsoever.

KUNG FU PANDA 3, like the two previous entries, is positively gorgeous as a visual odyssey, more than equaling the finest work that Pixar has been churning out for decades.  Directors Jennifer Yuh (whom helmed the last film, the best in the series) and Alessandro Carloni display a vast amount of unbridled ambitiousness when it comes to conjuring up the multiple Chinese locales that are front and center in this series.  The opulent color spectrum utilized to lovingly evoke the countryside is always inviting and awe inspiring in equal measure (if anything, KUNG FU PANDA 3 is a wondrous virtual travelogue film of an alternate reality), not to mention the virtuoso work in conjuring up the fantastical spirit realm that favors heavily in the film’s multiple confrontations.  The character animation compliments everything perfectly, displaying both a subtle nuance and vivaciousness that we’ve come to expect in these films.  Despite the fact that KUNG FU PANDA is populated by animals of various shapes and sizes, they all feel like tactile beings with human frailties and vulnerabilities for us to relate to and root for.   

And Jack Black just fits Po like a proverbial glove, showcasing the comedian’s natural gifts for goofy, man-child tomfoolery while also harnessing his abilities to invest in his character’s emotional uncertainties that plague him.  Po is an endlessly loveable creation that’s mostly played for comic relief, but Black makes sure not to present him as too standoffishly oafish.  I especially liked the new additions to the voice cast here as well, like Simmons as Kai, a supernatural baddie that may not stand up as well to the previous villains that have occupied this trilogy, but Simmons memorably plays him with the right balance of sinister creepiness and stubborn pride (he gets awfully defensive and cranky when innocent and intimidated villagers don’t know of his conquests).  Cranston has splendid voice chemistry with Black in the film as Po’s well meaning, but bumbling father.  Part of the newfound joy of exploring this overarching narrative of the franchise is in finally seeing Po and his real papa interact and discover the worlds that they mutually reside in.   

Then again, for a climatic chapter in the series, KUNG FU PANDA doesn’t pack the emotional wallop that it should have, nor does it fundamentally raise the dangerous stakes for its characters.  The series has built itself up to the long-awaited reunion between father and son, which mostly pays off, albeit in a fairly preordained manner.  And even though the threat of Kai feels chillingly palpable throughout the film – especially chilling is the way he turns Po’s allies into jade-stoned zombies that will do his biding – there’s rarely a moment in KUNG FU PANDA 3 when you think that Po will not fully emerge victorious.  Much like the first and even to a smaller extent the second film, far too many of the supporting players – voiced by the likes of Angelina Jolie, Lucy Lui, Seth Rogen, David Cross, and Jackie Chan – are underutilized and are frankly marginalized in the story.  Jolie’s Tigress, for example, had a more sizable and welcome contribution to make in Po’s development into the Dragon Warrior in KUNG FU PANDA 2, but here she – like her fellow combatants and allies – isn't given much to do here. 

Thematically, KUNG FU PANDA 3 is not very deep, even though lessons like family in various forms and being true to yourself and harnessing your own special talents are good ones for young viewers.  Despite its shortcomings, though, the film is an imaginative feast for the eyes and is replete with rousing action and equal amounts of merriment and drama that will keep audiences of all ages young and old engaged.  The overall storyline of KUNG FU PANDA 3 may not bring everything in this series to a rewarding conclusion as much as I would have liked, nor does it truly hold up to the finest efforts in the Dreamworks canon (that honor goes to the masterful HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON series), but it’s nevertheless a worthy continuation of Po’s ascension from an outcast nobody to prophecy-fulfilled hero.  And Jack Black makes the character uniquely his own through and through as only he is capable of doing.   

Oh, and the film will really make you rush out to your favorite Chinese restaurant in a breathless "panda asthma" haze to seek out dumplings for days after seeing it.  Trust me.  

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