Unsuspecting Panda Gets Hit on the Head: The Franchise returns after 5 years in hibernation to serve up its popular platter of exquisitely crafted visual aesthetics and minimally involving story beats (author’s note: giant pandas do not hibernate). Kung Fu Panda 3 once again follows Po (voiced by Jack Black) on his legendary “Skadooshing” adventures, as he faces down threats to his kingdom, his species and his concept of fatherhood.
Not entirely unlike the recent viral video of Smithsonian’s National Zoo panda, Tian Tian, rolling through the snow, this installment in the Kung Fu Panda franchise provides a fleeting but fairly adorable diversion. The film – co-helmed by Oscar-nominated Kung Fu Panda 2 director Jennifer Yuh as well as Kung Fu Panda story artist Alessandro Carloni (his feature debut) – is rich with stylized sequences that heighten the experience from moment to moment when the movie isn’t bogged down by its all too familiar plot.
Opening in the spirit world, where beings, objects and entire masses of lands are suspended mid-air like the Na’vi worlds of Avatar set on the other side of a black hole, Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) stoically hovers in meditation when a muscular bull carrying glowing jade daggers appears in the distance. The running gag that begins here is that despite his supposed infamy, the villainous Kai (J.K. Simmons) is forced to reintroduce himself on each successive encounter. The joke never completely lands though, as Kai feels like a forgotten character from one of the previous films and reducing his entrances to a gag diminishes his effectiveness as the central villain.
While Kai gradually battles his way through China’s motley crew of martial arts gurus – a Master for every breed of animal – Po reacts to the sudden appearance of his birth father, Li (Bryan Cranston). Li’s emergence threatens Mr. Ping (James Hong), Po’s adoptive father, putting the titular panda into an interspecies version of My Two Dads.
Conveniently, Li comes from a secret panda paradise where Po’s mentor Oogway was once taught the secrets of Chi in order to dispatch of Kai. This revelation, illustrated in the style of ancient Chinese calligraphy paintings, is one of the more gorgeous sequences of the movie – as is a later training montage in which shots are given different blue or red filters (much like Tian Tian, Po, too, hones his kung fu abilities by rolling through snow).
Kung Fu Panda has always been one of the most visually inventive major animated film franchises, and the third entry continues to push those boundaries further. Often, during martial arts action shots, the backgrounds collapse into lightly detailed yellows or reds, lending this installment a sporadic anime/comic book feel.
Likewise, the character animations are coherently communicative, often unique to a defining animal’s traits (or personality). The micro-expressions of joy or confusion that are animated into Po’s reactions sell punchlines as well as most live performances. His fluid, highly expressive movements – such as when Kai looks at Po through a “spiritual scope” and Po adjusts to cover his body – will help to captivate children while sporadically entertaining the adults.
Despite its strengths, Kung Fu Panda 3 is unlikely to expand the already massive audience interested in this property much further. It’s in the process of becoming the first animated feature film to release a second version with custom facial and body language animations for its Mandarin audience – so perhaps franchise expansion isn’t the primary goal – yet, Kung Fu Panda 3 ultimately feels episodic in its approach to this story.
A lively and childlike performance from Jack Black helps make Po and these films consistently endearing, even if not 100% successful. His vocal delivery turns the occasional, predictably bland joke into a belly laugh. Still, memories of Kung Fu Panda 3’s plot or best jokes fades quickly after leaving the theater. Like his brother panda Tian Tian, Po in Kung Fu Panda 3 is fun to watch for a time, but only ever mildly engaging.
Though entertaining at times, Kung Fu Panda 3 isn't entirely different from watching that video of Tian Tian, the Smithsonian's National Zoo panda, rolling in the snow on an hourlong loop