Maybe it’s just the “Star Wars” overload talking, but in hindsight, it’s hard not to see “Kung Fu Panda 2” (2011) as “The Empire Strikes Back” of animated mammals-and-martial-arts epics: Darker and scarier than the 2008 original, it took the winsome tale of a bouncy black-and-white furball, added traumatic layers of backstory, and climaxed with a startling revelation of parental identity. Despite a long-overdue family reunion that at times nudges the story into borderline-Ewok territory, it’s a pleasure to report that “Kung Fu Panda 3” is much more than the mere franchise equivalent of “Return of the Jedi.” Emotionally, dramatically and perhaps most of all visually (it’s worth seeing in 3D), this delightful trilogy capper is almost as generously proportioned as its cuddly warrior hero, restoring a winning lightness of touch to the saga while bringing its long-running themes of perseverance and self-knowledge to satisfying fruition.
The “Star Wars” comparisons, however facetious, are not entirely inapt, insofar as DreamWorks Animation once envisioned “Kung Fu Panda” as a six-film cycle. Assuming this Jan. 29 Fox release matches its predecessors at the box office (both earned north of $600 million worldwide) and scores another much-needed hit on the heels of last year’s unexpectedly lucrative “Home,” it’s safe to assume there will be additional adventures in store for our portly hero, Po (voiced again here by the excellent Jack Black). The commercial imperatives of franchise filmmaking being what they are, it’s futile to point out that “Kung Fu Panda 3” brings Po’s story to such an effective and naturally heartwarming finish that it seems unnecessary to prolong it further; Hollywood, as we know, has long been in the business of the unnecessary.
Happily, under the fluid direction of Jennifer Yuh Nelson (who helmed “Kung Fu Panda 2”) and Alessandro Carloni, the new film never seems in danger of falling under that description, pulling us in with an otherworldly prologue set in the eternal Spirit Realm. Last seen vanishing into a vortex of flower petals in the first “Kung Fu Panda,” the wise old tortoise Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) is settling down for a few centuries of well-earned rest when he’s attacked by his ancient frenemy, Kai (J.K. Simmons), a blade-wielding yak who has challenged thousands of kung fu masters and stolen their chi, which he stores in jade amulets and uses to raise a powerful supernatural army. Once he defeats Oogway, Kai harnesses enough power to escape back into the mortal world, where he becomes determined to hunt down the one fated to overthrow him: Po, the Dragon Warrior.
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Kai’s campaign of destruction couldn’t come at a worse possible time for Po, who finds himself torn between his adoptive father, the noodle-peddling goose Mr. Ping (James Hong), and his long-lost biological dad, Li (Bryan Cranston), who turns up in the Valley of Peace looking for his missing son. It’s a joyous reunion, and Po, finally coming belly-to-belly with another panda for the first time, feels a powerful longing to be among his own kind. Knowing he must master his own chi to have a shot at defeating Kai, Po decides to return with Li to the secret mountain village where members of their species now reside, having taken refuge after the terrible panda genocide recounted in the second film. Meanwhile, Po’s faithful friends Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and the Furious Five — aka Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross) — stay behind to hold down the fort against Kai, though they succumb almost immediately to the warlord’s brutal chi spree.
Whenever matters threaten to turn grave, however, “Kung Fu Panda 3” always has a mood-puncturing quip or sight gag at the ready, a tactic that would grate more if its sense of humor weren’t so buoyant and disarming (a few repetitive yuks aside). The physical comedy becomes downright infectious as Po begins to bond with his new community and soon realizes the vices that made him such an unlikely kung fu master are in fact a panda’s natural entitlements: sleeping until noon every day, avoiding almost all forms of exercise, and consuming one’s body weight in dumplings, cookies and noodles. (“I always felt I wasn’t eating up to my full potential!” Po squeals when he realizes chopsticks have merely been slowing him down.) Naturally, too, there’s a brief flicker of romantic possibility in the introduction of a somewhat aggressively amorous, ribbon-dancing panda named Mei Mei (Kate Hudson, voicing a role once intended for Rebel Wilson), though the character is played mainly for laughs. Not that the Po/Tigress shippers should get too excited, given the cool finality with which Jolie’s Tigress refers to Po as “a friend.”
The strength of the “Kung Fu Panda” series has long been its refusal to take itself or its internal contradictions too seriously. The path to enlightenment, as embodied by the Yoda-like Oogway, is paved with wit and whimsy. Elegant and rough-and-tumble by turns, these are movies that blend the somber mystique of Chinese wuxia epics with the rambunctiousness of old-school chopsocky, plus a dollop of American geek-culture enthusiasm: Po may be the Chosen One, but he’s also a total goofball — a misfit and an underachiever who just so happens to have a prophetic destiny foisted upon him. How he learns to reconcile these different aspects of his personality, including the identity crisis brought on by his split parentage, becomes the rich thematic core of Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger’s screenplay. There is perhaps no more hackneyed kid-pic moral than the importance of finding and believing in yourself, but “Kung Fu Panda 3” has just enough conviction and pop gravitas to make even this cliche resonate anew.
It also retains the Asian design flourishes and stylistic adventurousness that distinguished its predecessors, though fans of the series by now will be accustomed to (and perhaps less easily wowed by) its occasional flights into lyrical abstraction. Yuh Nelson and Carloni bring a flowing, tactile beauty to the new movie’s landscapes, which include the pandas’ secluded mountain village and a large farm where Kai stages one of his many dramatic entrances. Much time is spent in the Spirit Realm, a parallel dimension of infinite space where massive rock formations are forever colliding and breaking apart, adding another element of physical danger to the thrilling climactic action sequence. And in perhaps the boldest visual stroke, Kai’s mind-controlled warriors take the form of life-sized jade sentinels, standing out somewhat incongruously, but strikingly, against the softer-edged backdrops.
Kai himself is voiced with villainous gusto by Simmons, no slouch in that particular department, and Cranston brings a wounded gravitas to the role of Po’s panda father, his thrill at finding his son clearly tempered by a sense of the years they’ve lost, and a determination not to lose any more. The returning voice actors turn in their usual top-drawer work despite fairly limited screen time, with the welcome exception of Hong’s Mr. Ping, whose fierce love for Po — expressed, as always, through nagging concern that he isn’t getting enough to eat — has long been one of the series’ truest cornerstones. Here, as a squawking defender of the rights of interspecies adoption, he nudges this animal cartoon fantasy ever more endearingly in the direction of the human.