The previous Kung Fu Panda films encouraged a lot of laughter, but this is the first one to really mount an attack on your tear glands. By introducing Bryan Cranston as Po’s long lost biological father Li, this threequel brings the franchise to an all-time-high in terms of emotionality and character depth. This is, for the most part, wonderful to watch.
Before Li even arrives, Jack Black’s Po is already in the thick of it. Having earned the title of Dragon Warrior, he’s now being pushed into a mentor role by Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu, who wishes to quit his teaching post and sit in a cave for thirty years in order to master the mystical powers of chi. Po, of course, makes a complete hash of these new responsibilities in a humorous slapstick sequence early on.
For lesser animated movies – certainly back in the straight-to-video sequel age – this student-to-teacher transition would have been enough in terms of character development. But Kung Fu Panda 3 chucks in further threats and worries to really up the ante and push Po to his limits. When Li shows up, he’s a breath of fresh air for Po – a fun-loving father figure, closer to Cranston’s character from Malcolm In The Middle than Breaking Bad.
After a familial meet-cute, Li and Po get on like a house on fire. Li’s carefree attitude towards everything is the perfect distraction for Po, and the two share a variety of heart-warming moments as Po shirks his newfound responsibilities in favour of showing his newfound father around. Of course, things can’t stay this cushty for long.
Enter J K Simmons as Kai, an ancient villain with a huge chip on his shoulder and a mastery of the chi arts that none of the goodies can match. Kai is just the right blend of scary and silly for a kids’ film, with his frightful ability to entrap individuals in green crystals counterbalanced by his Star-Lord aping annoyance at the fact that nobody seems to remember who he is.
From here, the film pushes outward in some interesting directions. Li takes Po to a hidden panda colony to hide out and regroup, and Mr Ping – Po’s adoptive goose father, voiced again by James Hong – insists on coming along. There’s a conflict between Po’s two father figures, with some interesting questions about Nature V Nurture lying underneath. Which is more important to shaping who we are? And is it possible to balance the two? Unconventional families feel like an important topic for children in the modern world to learn about, and who’d have thought that Kung Fu Panda 3 would be the movie to broach it?
Along the way to the inevitable final showdown with Kai, Po learns about his heritage and grows a lot as a person. Li and Mr Ping both take away some important lessons too. But, this stellar character material does come at a cost; Kung Fu Panda 3 doesn’t quite pack in as many chuckles as its predecessors. There’s a memorable dumpling gag for the older viewers, some decent physical humour, and a Rebel Wilson-alike female comic relief character (actually voiced by Kate Hudson because Wilson had to drop out), but the laughs sadly don’t come as thick and fast as they did in parts 1 and 2 of the series.
However, there are more than enough positives to outweigh this and make Kung Fu Panda 3 a terrific family treat. There are some important messages about fatherhood lying underneath an engaging quest to take down a powerful villain. The fights are fun without overwhelming everything else, and the addition of chi to the series brings a whole new visual toy box for the animators and directors to play with.
And, as ever, there are moments when the film breaks from 3D computer animation to try something different on a 2D plane. This level of imagination is something that the franchise has always embraced, and it’s still very welcome. Thus, while Kung Fu Panda could be funnier, it has a lot to offer instead of those big belly laughs.
Kung Fu Panda 3 arrives in UK cinemas on March 11th.
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