At this point, you know what to expect from a Kung Fu Panda movie. Po, the dumpling-gorging panda turned Dragon Warrior, will struggle with self-doubt while attempting to attain new levels of zen martial arts mastery. A daunting animal villain who’s determined to settle a long-standing score will emerge, eventually confronting Po in a dangerous battle. Po will attempt to defeat said adversary and in the process, gain confidence and learn important life lessons. And, at some point, we’ll hear a contemporary cover of Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting.”
Kung Fu Panda 3 follows that same template almost to the letter and punctuation mark. But it’s so engaging and entertaining that its reliance on that well-worn hero’s journey narrative doesn’t feel stale. The inspired minds at DreamWorks Animation may be playing a familiar song, but they fine-tune their instruments astutely enough to keep audiences invested in what happens to Po, that behemoth bear with the voice of Jack Black and unparalleled finger-hold “skadooshing” skills.
In this latest chapter, the daunting animal villain role is filled by Kai, a beastly, green-eyed yak voiced by J.K. Simmons in fully unbridled, “Not my tempo” mode. After conquering his friend-turned-adversary Master Oogway — the turtle version of Obi Wan Kenobi, who died in the first movie — in the otherworldly realm, Kai steals Oogway’s chi, the special energy possessed by truly gifted kung fu masters. He then re-enters the mortal world and attempts to steal the chi of everyone who ever trained under Oogway, including Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), the members of the fighting force dubbed the Furious Five and their compatriot, Po. Ultimately, it’s Po, currently failing in his attempt to attain inner peace and take over Furious Five-teaching duties from Shifu, who feels compelled to lead the anti-Kai charge, an effort that eventually reconnects him with his long-lost relatives in a remote panda village as well as his birth father, Li (Bryan Cranston).
Family issues are at the core of Kung Fu Panda 3, which also finds Po’s adoptive father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), fretting over his reimagined role in his son’s life. Gay couples, parents of adopted children and members of blended families may especially appreciate the times when Po refers to both the male figures in his life as “Dads,” moments the filmmakers deploy with enough restraint to avoid excessive sentimentality. Cranston does particularly lovely voice work as Li, infusing him with the right balance of childlike exuberance and tender sweetness, particularly in a scene in which he tells Po about his mother.
But the real wow factor in Kung Fu Panda 3 is its sense of visual adventure. As in the first two movies, the animation brims with gorgeous, richly colored texture, particularly when Po first lays eyes on the lush majesty of the village he left behind as an infant. When co-directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh, who directed Kung Fu Panda 2, change filmmaking gears — using a split-screen approach during a key action sequence, or switching to more traditional, 2D hand-drawn animation during a flashback — they do so with a confidence that makes those shifts feel seamless and exciting.
As Po continues to evolve on a personal level, the body language of the character has, too. In the first movie, he came across as a panda who just happened to sound like the dude from School of Rock when he opened his mouth. In this one, Black and Po have fused to the point where the character’s physical movements and gestures fully resemble those of the live action actor. At last, it seems, the kung-fu master and the frontman of Tenacious D have fully become one.