One of the things that makes Po, the eponymous hero of the animated Kung Fu Panda franchise, so endearing is that he doesn’t take his skills in stride. As voiced once again by the excitable gravel that is Jack Black’s speaking instrument, Po takes a childlike delight in being able to defy gravity and dispatch the bad guys with a lethal finger grip. He’s also still just a little abashed at being story’s chosen one, the fulfillment of a 500-year-old prophecy, the implications of which form the plot of KUNG FU PANDA 3. Once again Po will be forced to find martial arts greatness he couldn’t have imagined, while also dealing with a situation that is less the realm of fantasy and more the challenge facing blended families everywhere.
The villain this time is Kai (J.K. Simmons’ bold baritone with just a hint of reverb), a water buffalo of prodigious proportions and towering horns, who hasn’t let a little thing like being dead for 500 years stop him from plotting revenge. The object of that revenge is Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), the recently departed tortoise who plucked Po from a life of munching dumplings and long naps. By stealing Oogway’s post-mortem chi, Kai is able to return from the spirit realm to destroy everything that the chelonian created during his time on earth. That means destroying the denizens of the Jade Palace, the Kung Fu academy where Master Oogway’s successor, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), has just turned over the teaching duties to a befuddled Po. Shifu longs to perfect his own chi by sitting in a cave for thirty years, a decision that leaves the Jade Palace team –Monkey (Jackie Chan), Tigress (Angelina Jolie-Pitt), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Mantis (Seth Rogan) — bemused and bruised as Po’s first class goes horribly wrong.
But that isn’t the end of Po’s surprises. His biological father, the charmingly goofy Li (Bryan Cranston), arrives, to the delight of Po, who thought he was the last of his kind, and the chagrin of Mr. Ping (James Hong), the dumpling-making noodle-master of a goose who raised Po as his own, and waited 20 years to tell him that he was adopted.
As with the first two films, the writing here is slick, witty, and not afraid to embrace the essential silliness of a story that finds a Kung Fu rooster taking on a water buffalo, and a bug getting the best of a simian. It also embraces the essential elements of the hero’s journey without ever seeming stale. If we are asked to indulge the filmmakers in yet another story that involves Po finding his true nature, we are also given excellent reasons for welcoming it. The very thing that has made Po feel like an outsider everywhere become his greatest strengths as he visits the secret panda village where everyone looks like him, and his natural gifts for play and pigging out become the key to saving the people he loves. Yet even those natural gifts need perfecting, including the finer points of how to roll down a hill without smashing into a boulder. It’s a neat trick, and done with panache. We even get a hint of romance, courtesy of Mei Mei (Kate Hudson), the silken-lashed ribbon dancer who throws herself, literally, at Po.
The animation, whether seen in 2D or 3D is terrific. While only in 3D will the cherry-blossom petals that surround Master Oogway as he contemplates eternity in the spirit world float aetherially into the audience, the epic, and painstakingly accurate, Kung Fu battles that work in either D, with moves seamlessly modified to accommodate a snake or a crocodile. There is just as much attention to detail when it comes to the character’s faces. One is particularly struck with how many iterations the artists have discovered in the basic Panda template without succumbing to the shortcuts of egregious exaggeration.
KUNG FU PANDA 3 is that rare sequel that is as good as its predecessor, and its predecessor’s predecessor. There is a joyous sense of wonder, a genuine warmth, and an irresistible tug at both the funny bone and the heart that makes this a buoyant delight of a movie.