KUNG FU PANDA 3 (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG

for martial arts action and some mild rude humor
Released: January 29, 2016
Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni
Starring: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Cranston, J.K. Simmons, Angelina Jolie, Kate Hudson, David Cross, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan

Within the scattershot and now faltering DreamWorks Animation brand, the first two Kung Fu Panda movies stand out as the studio’s crown jewels.

They’ve had an actual artistic ambition that most other DreamWorks Animation entries have lacked, and even their general adherence to the same formula – a “you’re destined for something special” hero’s journey – has remained fresh and lively through comedic charm, emotional family dynamics, and the bottomless well of Jack Black’s adorable comic silliness.

Kung Fu Panda 3 continues that tradition with a sincere, heartfelt spirit, not the flat or rote calculation that’s common to so many third chapter sequels. It takes that same formula and visual flair, boosts it with new characters that deepen the franchise’s family themes, raises the stakes with a supernatural villain from the spirit realm, and keeps it all light and fun and funny without diminishing the narrative or emotional stakes. That last and best trait remains, thanks squarely to Jack Black. He can skidoosh the laughs with an earnest purity that anchors the cartoonish action to a stronger, more meaningful core.

Although seemingly dumped into late January – a move by studios that often suggests a lack of confidence in a movie’s quality and prospects – Kung Fu Panda 3 plays like the thoroughly entertaining major Christmas release it was originally scheduled to be. Now smartly repositioned a month later, KFP3 is perfectly timed to give kids and families a new movie-going option after multiple Star Wars VII viewings. They’ll definitely find a similar spirituality, as this film’s “Chi” (pronounced “chee”) bears a strong resemblance to The Force, a universal all-binding essence that can also be possessed – and strengthened – by individual monastic warriors.

The villain Kai (J.K. Simmons, 2014’s Supporting Actor winner for Whiplash), a former ally of Master Oogway who now covets all martial art power, travels from the spiritual to the mortal realm in order to go on a Chi stealing spree. The most coveted Chi of all? That which belongs to the Dragon Warrior…aka Poe, our heroic titular Jack Black-fueled panda. And in a prophetic warning from Master Oogway to Kai, the Dragon Warrior is the only one who can stop him.

This sets the stage for the perfunctory “Am I good enough?” identity crisis for Poe, which is compounded by his elevation from warrior to teacher (it doesn’t go so well, albeit hilariously so). The discovery of his biological panda father Li Shan (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) also complicates matters, bringing great joy to Poe but anxiety to his adoptive father Ping.

As Kai’s onslaught grows, accumulating the Chis of kung fu masters and warriors alike (including Oogway’s), Poe retreats with Li Shan to his panda village birthplace. There, and without the help of the Furious Five or Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, another anchor in this franchise), Poe plans to channel and master his own Chi so that he can face and defeat the formidable Kai. This inevitably involves the enlisting – and training – of the entire panda village, emphasizing those enduring themes of teamwork and family, and the truth that we can’t reach our destinies alone. And it’s within that unity that we each realize the fullness of who we are as individuals, and what we’re meant to be. All set to the occasional “Kung Fu Fighting” song cover, of course.

Kung Fu Panda 3 ends up being that perfect sequel comfort food, giving you everything you’re expecting but in the best possible way, still unfolding with the same boundless energy (and pockets of cuddly cuteness) that made the original so entertaining and endearing. It also provides a villain and climax so daunting that the outcome to victory isn’t readily apparent, and will require not only valor on the part of Poe, but ingenuity – and possible sacrifice.

By its conclusion, Kung Fu Panda 3 makes a clever connection to the saga’s beginnings, allowing it to be – if it ends up being – a perfect final chapter in a consistently successful trilogy. Sure, there’s still plenty of room left for a Kung Fu Panda 4, of course, and while audiences may not necessarily be clamoring for more Poe down the road, it’s safe to say they’d welcome him back with warm anticipation if there’s more fight in him.

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