Sunday, January 31, 2016

KUNG FU PANDA 3 Is Kung Fu Awesome


- The Kung Fu Panda movies are pretty much awesomeness on a stick. Each entry in the Dreamworks Animation series has been full of fun, joy, humor, heart, and visual fireworks - and the third entry is no exception. For a long time, Dreamworks was very much considered off-brand Pixar. But films like How To Train Your Dragon, Megamind, and Kung Fu Panda helped to, rightfully, change that perception. The Panda films may not be especially deep or profound, but they hit a sweet spot in terms of packing in just the right amount of adult-pleasing action and humor with kid-friendly characters and themes. While the formula wears perhaps a tiny bit thin in the third film, KUNG FU PANDA 3 still entertains with a steady and kung fu grip.

KUNG FU PANDA 3 follows up on Part 2's reveal of there being other pandas out there, hidden away in a secret city. Now, Po's father (voiced to great effect by Bryan Cranston), has gone in search of his long-lost son - with an aim to bring him back to be among his own kind. However, Po's family reunion comes just as an ancient evil - Kai - has resurfaced after an extended imprisonment in the spirit realm. Kai's powers allow him to absorb the chi of his enemies, turning them into glowy green ghost slaves that do is bidding. And the only way to stop Kai - because he is a spirit being - is to use the power of chi against him. Only problem is, there's no one around who has that power. Chi master Oogway is himself confined to the spirit realm, and the pandas - who were once adept at manipulating chi - have forgotten how to wield it. So of course, it's now up to Po and his friends to figure out how to stop Kai and his plans of conquest.

Jack Black is once again ridiculously fun as Po. Black makes his panda alter-ego both lovable and hilarious - mixing real heart amidst the rapid-fire jokes. In this movie, Po seemingly starts things off having not grown up too much from the previous movies. He's now a bonafide hero - the "Dragon Warrior" - but he mostly spends his time traipsing around the village and basking in his adulation of his fans. However, the movie then proceeds to give Po a real hero's journey - not only must he reconcile his life as he's known it so far with the way his fellow pandas live, but he also must finally become a true leader. The movie frames Po's character arc with surprising elegance. Also handled with surprising elegance: the relationship between Po, his adoptive dad Ping, and his actual, newly-reunited-with dad Li. Give credit to Cranston and James Hong (as Ping) for their great voice-work. But also give credit to a script that somehow makes you care about the relationship between a giant panda and a duck, and may even get you a bit misty-eyed.

This franchise has always had a pretty ridiculously-stacked bench of voice actors. Aside from Black as Po, you've also got a returning ensemble of Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu, and Jackie Chan as his kung-fu compatriots. Plus Dustin Hoffman as curmudgeonly mentor Master Shifu. Kate Hudson also gets to have fun as Mei Mei, an awkward female panda who comes on a bit strong towards her latest crush, Po. Basically, the voice acting here is pretty excellent - and it's no surprise that always-funny guys like Cross nail their jokes and provide great comic relief. Kai is voiced by J.K. Simmons, and he's suitably big, bad, and menacing.

In terms of action, well, this is where the franchise has always really excelled. Part 3 delivers - with some truly spectacular visuals and set pieces. What I really like is that the KUNG FU PANDA movies playfully pay homage to classic kung-fu films - though they also show a real respect for them, and for the elaborate fight choreography that is their trademark. There's a lot of Jackie Chan-style use of props and other objects in the action, which is cool. And, bigger picture, the overall visuals of the film are just plain eye-popping. Like the other entries in the franchise, the use of color here is fantastic. Plus, there are really cool interludes that are animated in the style of ancient Chinese scrolls. Very cool.

The only real knock against this one is that, in some ways, it's a bit same-y vs. the previous movies. A lot of the big themes (Po's lack of maturity, his directionless, his fraught relationship with his adopted father and friends) have been covered before. But there are some nice new twists (Po re-learning how to live properly as a Panda), and the mythology of the franchise feels satisfyingly expanded.

At the end of the day, these films are just incredibly fun. Perfect movie-going comfort food. I don't know that a KUNG FU PANDA movie will ever be held in the same high regard as the likes of Wall-E or Toy Story. But you know what? Maybe they should be.

My Grade: A-