Directors: Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Alessandro Carloni
Cast: Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, JK Simmons, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie
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2008’s Kung Fu Panda was a real turning point for DreamWorks Animation, marrying their trademark comedic house-style to a more detailed world than we had yet seen from the studio’s Shrek franchise. It holds up as one of their very best films, which is why it’s all the more impressive that its two sequels have maintained that standard.
Mind you, they’ve also followed the same broad story structure – it ain’t broke, so they haven’t had to fix it, but each film thus far has seen Jack Black’s cuddly chosen one Po take incremental steps on his path to kung fu mastery. This time around, our portly Dragon Warrior is shocked to discover that his father, Li Shen (Cranston), is actually alive and well, living in a secret panda village. Much to the chagrin of his adoptive dad, Mr. Ping (James Hong), Po goes off to the village to reconnect with Li and his people.
Meanwhile, a bullish adversary,known as Kai the Collector (Simmons), a former ally of Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), has escaped from his exile in the spirit realm, hellbent on destroying the late master’s legacy. With the terrifying power to petrify other masters and bend their power to his will, he goes after the Furious Five and the Dragon Warrior, who must now master his chi in order to defeat his most dangerous enemy yet.
DreamWorks has always known a franchise when it sees one and CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has previously hinted that there might be as many as six Kung Fu Panda movies. That suggests a certain amount of forethought has gone into the solid trilogy shape that screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger have hashed out over the course of three films, but you’ll be surprised at just how satisfying this is. Like another of their threequels, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, it brings the characters full circle by the end, in such a way that you’d be very happy if they left it at this.
Despite the trailers making it look like a more cynical follow-up (the prominence of the baby pandas recalls the ogre babies who turned out to have about 30 seconds of screen-time in Shrek The Third), this one is more emotional than the previous two instalments, thanks to the introduction of Li. Although this retcons certain parts of Kung Fu Panda 2, it quickly gets stuck into the dynamic between Po and his two dads. The confusion of Po believing that a goose is his dad has been one of the series’ better running jokes, but the pay-off here is very rewarding, especially whenever the frantic Mr. Ping and the laidback Li share a scene.
Kai fits right in with a line of genuinely intimidating antagonists too, with Simmons proving especially adept at using the character’s towering rage to either frighten or amuse – the character is rather miffed that nobody seems to tremble at the mention of his name, because he hasn’t passed into legend as he feels he deserves. Tai Lung and Lord Shen are tough acts to follow, but Kai keeps the stakes high, in what feels like a climactic instalment.
As we’ve come to expect from this series, the action and comedy are both on point. True, it’s not quite as funny this time around, but what Kung Fu Panda 3 lacks in belly laughs, it makes up for with thematic heft. Black develops his performance right along with his hero’s journey and the absurdly starry cast of supporting characters, including Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen and David Cross, are present and correct for more humorous turns.
Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson is joined by Alessandro Carloni, and follows up her sumptuous sequel with another visually glorious smorgasbord of design and digital cinematography. It repeats some of the second film’s playfulness with other forms of animation, but also elaborates upon it, particularly in dazzling scenes set inside the spirit realm.
That so much of Kung Fu Panda 3 rhymes with what has gone before helps to solidify all three films as one story – it’s not up there with the Toy Stories, but this is one of those rare trilogies that has three consistently good parts. On its own merits, this is a heartfelt and exhilarating sequel that is both enlightened and enlightening.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
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