Po the panda—Dragon Warrior, lover of dumplings and hater of stairs–makes an entertaining return in Kung Fu Panda 3, a sequel that, like Panda 2, continues to improve the extremely successful animated franchise since its somewhat frenetic inception in 2008, this thanks to a talented voice cast, led by returnee Jack Black, and some remarkable visuals.
In the spirit realm, Grandmaster Oogway, a turtle, battles villain Kai, a yak (J.K. Simmons), who has taken the chi of other Kung Fu masters and turned them into small jade charms. Oogway willingly gives Kai his chi, but warns Kai that he will ultimately be stopped by the Dragon Warrior. So Kai breaks back into the mortal realm to find Po and take his chi, too.
Black once again proves perfect as Po, using his lively personality to make Po an exuberant, very likeable character, one you really want to see succeed, especially when he becomes the new kung fu instructor after Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a red panda, chooses to retire. Suffice to say the new dynamic instantly fills Po with new doubts about himself that tie in nicely to the larger plot.
A trio of fine performers backs Black up, starting with franchise newbie Bryan Cranston as Po’s biological father. People know him best as Walter White, but his funny and sweet work here reminded me fondly of his time on Malcolm in the Middle. Simmons, long a great character actor, effortlessly imbues Kai with big-headed menace and again proves a witty deliverer of throwaway lines.
The big surprise, though, would be fellow franchise player James Hong as Po’s adoptive father, Ping, a goose. At 87, Hong’s been in the business a while—his first credit was in 1954!—and I’ve enjoyed his turns in films like Big Trouble in Little China. He provided excellent exasperated comic relief in the first two Panda flicks, but gets to stretch his dramatic wings a little more here as Ping receives some unexpected competition for Po’s affections.
Most crucially, the film sees the return of director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who made Panda 2 a feast for the eyes while imbuing it with surprising depth. Here she and co-director Alessandro Carloni lighten the overall tone, but still manage to convey a strong message and create even more stunning imagery—the spirit realm, in particular. With its soothing golden hues, I didn’t want to leave it. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 6/28/16