Kung Fu Panda 3 wraps up the finest animation trilogy ever that isn't about toys.
Dreamworks' franchise built upon the silliest of premises has continually progressed, in cultural palette and themes, from its surprising 2008 inauguration. It has briefly fallen back on familiarity, as sequels tend to do. Yet there's always something next to surprise, tickle or move in a fresh manner.
After all the pixel-driven dragons, eco-fairies, robots and dinosaurs I won't mind never seeing again, this portly panda voiced so exuberantly by Jack Black will be missed.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is a well-constructed, occasionally too hectic conclusion, building upon previous episodes as if there was always a narrative plan. (There seldom is, unless books came first.) No characters here contradict anything set up for them before, and new characters don't feel shoe-horned in.
Po has settled into his anointed role of Dragon Warrior, although demanding Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) believes he doesn't fully understand what that role means. Life is peaceful since Episode 2, so Po and his Furious Five warriors don't have much to do except be celebrated. Not for long.
In the Spirit Realm where the greatest masters reside, the rogue Gen. Kai (J.K. Simmons) is stealing each one's chi, their life essence. Kai plans to overrun the Mortal Realm with jade zombies of the dead masters at his command. Only Po's chi can stop him, if the panda harnesses it in time.
For many sequels that would be enough imagination. But Po's story has always had an outsider/orphan subtext that Kung Fu Panda 3 brings to full bloom. Po always treasured the goose Mr. Ping (James Hong) as his father, and believed himself to be the last panda. Both notions are shaken by the arrival of Li (Bryan Cranston), who looks, jiggles and eats dumplings like Po.
Their scene of first recognition as father and son — and Mr. Ping's reaction — is wonderful, igniting a paternal competition that evolves into something admirable. Yet, this isn't a simple matter. Something about Li — Cranston's line readings, perhaps — leaves a shadow of doubt about his claim from the outset. Ambiguity in a kid flick is a sign of respect, its resolution seconding.
Li also introduces a new canvas for the franchise's brilliant animation crew, continuing the franchise's unique medieval Asian look, depicted with martial arts movie flair, using split screens and whip pans. Li takes Po to his secret mountaintop village, where hundreds of pandas live carefree, including a flirty ribbon dancer Mei Mei (Kate Hudson) whose spotlight scene is a visual delight.
Mei Mei and the village's warm reception cause Po to consider giving up the Dragon Warrior life, eat more and roll down hills as pandas do. But who will protect the Valley of Peace from Kai?
At a brisk 90 minutes (counting end credits), Kung Fu Panda doesn't linger too long on any of these plot threads. By the time Kai and his jade army invade we're in tune with the characters and what everyone has on the line. The payoff runs a bit long, with perhaps one sentimental fake-out too many, although a long goodbye is earned.
A singular look, an exemplary vocal cast, and a narrative arc like a caress. That'll be the Kung Fu Panda franchise's legacy, the idea that shouldn't have worked but did, beautifully and with its own chi.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.