Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Jennifer Yuh, Alessandro Carloni
Stars: voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, J K Simmons, Bryan Cranston, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Seth Rogen, Kate Hudson, James Hong, Randall Duk Kim, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Wayne Knight, Steele Gagnon, Al Roker, Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, Pax Jolie-Pitt, Knox Jolie-Pitt, Zahara Jolie Pitt.
With a few notable exceptions, by the time most successful film franchises reach a third installment very few maintain the standard of the original. Most are beginning to show a lack of originality, signs of familiarity and tiredness. And so, to some extent, does this largely unnecessary sequel to the successful animated film Kung Fu Panda show signs of becoming stale.
The original Kung Fu Panda worked mainly because the character of Po was perfectly suited to Jack Black’s screen persona, and his energetic reading of the titular panda exponent of martial arts brought the character to life. Kung Fu Panda 2 was darker in tone, but it was enjoyable enough. While this third film is also enjoyable enough it seems a little stale and uninspired, and Po’s awesomeness is wearing a bit thin.
Regular writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger are still on board, and their familiarity with the characters means that Kung Fu Panda 3 holds few surprises beyond the introduction of a couple of new characters who bring a new dynamic to the material.
The film explores Po’s character arc and personal growth. He is still the bumbling dragon warrior finding his way. Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) insists that Po must now become a kung fu teacher, the next step in his evolution. But his attempts to train the so called “furious five” – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) and Mantis (Seth Rogen) – are not exactly a success.
But a new danger emerges in the form of the supernatural villain Kai (voiced with gusto by J K Simmons, from Whiplash, etc), who is stealing the chi, or life force, of past kung fu masters, including the ancient kung fu master, the Yoda-like Oogway (Randall Duk Kim). He now wants to steal the chi of the Dragon Warrior.
And then Po’s long lost biological father Li Chin (voiced by Bryan Cranston) turns up unexpectedly. Po returns to the secluded secret Panda village where he tries to reconnect with his father and the other villagers. For a while Po enjoys a peaceful relaxing time where he learns to be a real panda again. He also hopes to learn the secret of chi, the life force which will help him defeat Kai.
When Kai and his supernatural army threatens the peaceful village it is up to Po to reluctantly save the day. He trains the pandas to defend their village in scenes that will recall the classic western The Magnificent Seven.
The impressive vocal cast is reunited and they are all very good. Black’s lively vocal performance dominates the film and gives the material its energy, while Jolie brings a more stoic and serious quality to her performance as Tigress. Hoffman brings a touch of gravitas to his performance as Shifu. Simmons brings a nicely malevolent quality to his reading of Kai, while Cranston brings a warmth and genial quality to his performance as Po’s father. Kate Hudson is wasted in a fairly underdeveloped role as Mei Mei, a female panda who is attracted to Po, a role originally intended for Rebel Wilson. Four of Jolie’s adopted children –Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, Pax Jolie-Pitt, Knox Jolie-Pitt and Zahara Jolie Pitt – voice extras – making this more of a family affair.
Kung Fu Panda 3 explores universal themes of family, friendships, personal growth, identity and destiny. Younger audiences will enjoy the action and the slapstick humour, especially the stand out sequence where Po and Li Shan destroy the fabled Hall of Warriors while trying out battle gear. Older audiences will appreciate Po’s emotional journey and his quest to discover who he really is. And the filmmakers seems to treat ancient China and its culture and beliefs with respect and dignity.
The director here is Jennifer Yuh, who also directed Kung Fu Panda 2, so she is familiar with the tone and the look of the series. Co-director is Alessandro Carloni, a former animator making his feature film directorial debut. Some of the humour though is more miss than hit and too many gags fall flat.
The film boasts some superb CGI animation that maintains the usual high standard we have come to expect from the Dreamworks studios. Some colourful animation brings the beautiful Panda village to life, and it resembles a Shangri-la with plenty of adorable pandas. The action sequences have been inspired by the look of Japanese anime, while the extended prologue sequence set in the spiritual realm seems to unfold in a more traditional Chinese watercolour style of animation.
While Kung Fu Panda 3 would seem to suggest the end for Po’s spiritual journey Dreamworks have announced three more sequels.