Since the hugely successful first film in 2008, the Kung Fu Panda series has been a consistent pleasure from Dreamworks Animation. Combining great visuals, thoughtful stories, exciting battles and animal characters have proved a winner and now we arrive at the third film in the franchise, a point at which many have crumbled (Shrek, Spider-Man, X-Men, Terminator). So how has the martial arts mammal master fared? Well, we are relieved to say, rather well.
Kung Fu Panda 3 sees Dragon Warrior Po (Jack Black) and the Furious Five masters (Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Jackie Chan) continuing their journey of Kung Fu mastery, when Po rediscovers his family roots, with the appearance of his father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston). But when a new threat, in the villainous Kai (J.K. Simmons), is using the spirit world to make his own powers stronger, Po must train his people and try to fend off this new menace. The promotional material may bear (no point intended) elements that suggest the series has run its course- the poster depicts Po with arms full of Panda cubs- but thankfully, this is no overstuffed, cash-grabbing, threequel and is another darn fun entry in this deservingly popular series.
The film is visually stupendous and the manga influences leap from the screen, alongside the enthusiastic and culturally effective scoring from Hans Zimmer. The film is a colourful joy, with animation and characters that equally excel as vibrant, likable and interesting components of this animated sequel. The opening sequence alone is among the finest in the series, with fantastic and aesthetically interesting action, that kicks off what is an unexpected narrative direction. The spiritual element of the story works in broadening the series mythology and actually enlarges the franchises horizon, so it has many directions it could go in the future. Even the father (or rather double dad- with the chirpy presence of Po’s noodle making foster dad Mr. Ping (James Hong) and son dynamic at the centre of the plot works well enough, albeit initially it feels a tad jarring, before the daddy issue elements find their feet.
The aforementioned excellent opening and the traditionally structured final third (warrior training the inexperienced allies against an overpowering evil) are very well placed into this story of power and peace, that teaches kids how the pursuit of power can destroy whilst the search for inner peace can empower, heck some adults could learn from that. Where the film is let down a little is in the central stretch, which occasionally lags a bit and while enjoyable overall, it does take a while for the plot to come into its own. Plus, despite the fact kids will likely laugh along, some adults may tire of hearing “woah” and “awesome” before long. Still, for the odd failing joke or slow moment of storytelling, the plot has far more hits than misses and does come with its innovative spiritual pursuits, with the paternal relationship, once properly explored, becoming rather poignant mid-film and linking up with the events of Kung Fu Panda 2.
The voice cast is stacked and whether returning or fresh, they all feel into the parts and up for the fun, with nobody really seeming to phone it in. Jack Black is his usual excitable self as Po, as is Hong as Mr. Ping and Bryan Cranston is a great addition as Po’s biological dad Li Shan and, come the emotional moment mid-film, his endearing tone makes the character warm and appealing. The Furious Five crew are all again well placed in their parts, with Jolie’s Master Tigress once more being the most focal member of the group, though Cross’ Master crane, Rogen’s Master Mantis, Liu’s Master Vipress and Chan’s Master Monkey get some dialogue and banter in. Hoffman is a joy, as always, as Master Shifu and it is great to have Randall Duk Kim’s Yoda-like Master Oogeway back. However, once again, the key to the film’s success is in a great villain and in Simmons’ Kai, the film is blessed, as Kai is a worthy successor to Ian McShane’s Tai Lung in the first film and Gary Oldman’s Lord Shen in the second.
Kung Fu Panda 3 has its flaws but they are not plentiful and the momentum of this series continues, in what is another accessible, visually inventive and punchy entry in this reliably enjoyable franchise. Kung Fu Panda 4 is fine by us.
KUNG FU PANDA 3 / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: JENNIFER YUH NELSON AND ALESSANDRO CARLONI / SCREENPLAY: JONATHAN AIBEL, GLENN BERGER / STARRING: JACK BLACK, ANGELINA JOLIE, J.K. SIMMONS, DUSTIN HOFFMAN, BRYAN CRANSTON, SETH ROGEN, LUCY LIU, DAVID CROSS, JACKIE CHAN, JAMES HONG, RANDALL DUK KIM / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW