Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Alessandro Carloni
Screenplay: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Starring: Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, J. K. Simmons, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen, David Cross, James Hong, Kate Hudson, Randall Duk Kim, Jackie Chan
Runtime: 95 Minutes
The Kung Fu Panda series is one of those odd paradoxes where the title and general presentation of its marketing campaign may leave many to assume to worst of a situation brought into scrutiny by the Disney Corporation. A-List casting choices, colourful silliness and anthropomorphic animals spouting modern euphemisms, any product a premise as trite as a Panda learning the art of Kung Fu should be all means be destined for the ‘DVD Favourites’ bin of any supermarket – except this isn’t.
The first Kung Fu Panda was a genuine surprise; a heartfelt, light-hearted but remarkably deep study of its oriental teachings that was easily palatable to kids, and aesthetically engaging and nourishing for adults. Its sequel built on its foundations by going far deeper into the life’s and pasts of its characters, and ultimately ended up being a legitimately great movie rivalling the work of the Disney Renaissance (with Dreamworks themselves undergoing their own revival in the process).
Five years may have passed since then, but the anticipation of its arrival has been held by the fact that the field of animation itself has undergone a severe paradigm shift in the last few years. The same crew and director from the second feature have returned to continue the good work, and it’s a welcome relief to see that even with the triumphant return of Disney to the mainstream blockbuster throne of animation, Dreamworks have still got what it takes to live up to their newly established standards.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is pretty much everything it was initially designed to be; a continuation of the story strands and narrative arcs left by its predecessors, a transcendent voyage into the discipline of the oriental arts and philosophy, and a qualified capper as what currently appears to be the finale of a trilogy – as well as delivering on all the fat panda jokes that you could possibly wish for.
The direction of the film mostly follows its predecessor’s formula of the levelling up of Po’s (Black) powers as the Dragon Warrior, but the new dynamic comes in to form of his own Panda kind finally entering the frame as physical elements in the story. The first half hour is devoted to the rekindling of the relationship between Po and his father, Li Shan (played appealingly by Bryan Cranston), as well as the family dynamic that springs from his paternal connection with his adopted father, Mr Ping (Hong).
The only real stumbling block in this regard comes down to the film's handling of this conflict. It's played mostly for comfortable laughs and heaps on an abundance of light comedy sidelined by its more sincere predecessor, and the almost skittish quality of its distractive banter overwhelms what could be a sequence of poignancy within Po's spiritual journey. It really does feel for a short while like both directors and writers have somehow dropped the ball on the way to the home stretch. But then, at around the halfway mark, all of the dramatic weight and consequence of the previous instalment slowly pours back into the narrative forefront, and from this moment of the film retains the levity and emotional striving that has kept this series in such high standards.
Emotional bondage to Po’s internal struggle has always been the series strongest point, and the film doesn’t let up in this regard.
The regular cast all return and are on form, and of the newer cast, Kate Hudson feels like the least well utilised in comparison to the Jolie-Pitt children that make up the new youths of the Panda Village. J.K. Simmons, on the other hand, brings brilliantly performed menace to the antagonist Kai, a powerful spirit warrior harbouring the spirits of former masters with a vendetta to settle. His design and approach is up there with the best styling’s of Guillermo del Toro (coincidently an executive producer), and the look of the film is still a gorgeous exploitation of both the medium and its 3D production values, while Hanz Zimmer’s score is still an impressive sounding counterpart to the films cultural serfage.
Dreamworks are obviously planning on making more of these films (3 more, in fact), but in all honesty, this feels like the perfect place to end this story. It's a well rounded and cyclical narrative that takes its characters to the peaks of their potential. Unless they decide to take a drastically new direction, Kung Fu Panda 3 feels like the close needed to this surprisingly wonderful franchise.