On the one hand, it’s hard to believe that a movie franchise premised on the spectacle of a fighting panda bear is now in its third installment. On the other, the Kung Fu Panda movies really have concocted a winning formula. Each fighter is a different animal (from Jack Black’s panda bear protagonist Po to Seth Rogen’s scrappy Mantis) with a unique style, which provides no end of cool sequences to follow. As Avatar: The Last Airbender proved, animation is perhaps the best medium for martial arts, helping it move beyond superhuman physicality into the realm of mystical energy. These visuals are complimented by an insanely talented voice cast, who guide viewers through any and all setup. It’s much easier to digest complicated exposition about meditation and chi when delivered by Dustin Hoffman. Bryan Cranston, J.K. Simmons, and Kate Hudson provide welcome additions to this already-strong cast.
Kung Fu Panda 3 comes from the same creative team as the first two, which helps it build on the originals’ strengths. The third film finds Po and co happily enjoying their status as venerated protectors of the Valley of Peace, when Po’s assumed-dead biological father Li (Cranston) enters the scene. Po had been assumed, Superman-like, to be the last survivor of his race, but Li comes with tales of a secret panda village. Po’s friends realize that these peaceful pandas (including Hudson’s feisty dancer Mei Mei) might hold the secret to defeating the monstrous Kai (Simmons), who’s on a quest to vanquish every martial arts master in China.
The plot is predictable enough as kids adventure movies go. Beating Kai requires Po to overcome his own insecurities and re-learn the value of teamwork. It also builds on seeds laid in the first two movies. Po’s long-percolating mysteries of Po’s past are finally revealed, and the quest to defeat Kai forces Po to confront the prophecy Grand Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) made about him back in the first installment. This makes the film just complicated enough to reward steady viewers and just simple enough for parent escorts to enjoy without much prior knowledge. B