If one panda brings in crowds, whether at a zoo or the multiplex, the more the merrier. That seems to be the philosophy behind “Kung Fu Panda 3,” a visually stunning but story-wise pretty threadbare entry in the popular series. It not only brings the animated franchise to trilogy level, but gives us not just one or two of the bears but a whole rollicking village of them. Some might well find that too much of a good thing.
The script by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger finds Po (again voiced by Jack Black) being advanced, beyond his abilities, as the so-called Dragon Warrior by his mentor Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). But he’s still unable to locate his chi, which he believes he can achieve only through inheritance from his own rare kind. Fortunately, his biological father Li (Bryan Cranston) shows up and invites him to the hidden mountain village where pandas have congregated after the disaster that befell their race, as the second installment recounted. Li’s arrival—and Po’s decision to leave with him in an effort to fulfill his destiny—upset Po’s biological father, goose restaurateur Ping (James Hong), who tags along and eventually makes peace with the situation, and with Li, as a means of helping their son.
Meanwhile Po’s mission to become all he can be is made more urgent with the entrance into the Real World of the malevolent Kai (J.K. Simmons), who has been systematically stealing the chi of the masters in the Spirit World, including that of the tortoise Oogway (Randall Duk Kim). Having accumulated such enormous power in the jade amulets he wears and can summon at will, he defeats all of Po’s friends—Shifu, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross)—and absorbs their powers as well. He then sets his sights on Po and the entire panda village.
Up to this point “Kung Fu Panda 3” has vacillated fairly equally between sumptuous but overextended fight sequences, staged with near-balletic precision and lots of visual pizzazz, and the more personal scenes involving Po, Li, Ping and the other pandas, like the dancing princess Mei Mei (Kate Hudson) who obviously has her eye on Po (Kate Hudson). With Kai’s arrival at panda village, however, it swings into full battle mode. Of course, the inevitable victory of good over evil will require more than martial-arts knowhow; a film of this sort can’t get by without recourse to extolling the virtues of family, community, teamwork and self-sacrifice. But for all its lip-service to such matters (or, in the case of Ping, who’s the most eloquent about them, beak-service), the movie really does devolve into somewhat of a martial-arts explosion, which frankly can’t get a mite tiresome before it’s all over, though the leavening of humor makes it go down more easily.
And it must be admitted that even when the fighting goes on, directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni keep things moving, and the voice work is excellent, with Black, Hong and newcomers Cranston and Hudson providing especially strong contributions. (The other members of the secondary cast, however, are reduced to little more than walk-ons, and some will miss the camaraderie that was so big a part of the earlier installments.)
All that would mean little, though, if it weren’t for the exceptional work of the DreamWorks animation team, who create a succession of widescreen images that are literally feasts for the eye, in ravishing colors. The 3D format, as usual, dulls the vividness of the visuals, but it also adds texture to them, making for a fairly equal trade-off.
The “Kung Fu Panda” series has never attained the quality of the best Pixar product, or of some other one-shot animated pictures of recent years. But its mixture of warmhearted comedy, slapstick and action have managed to entertain legions of younger viewers, and this latest installment won’t disappoint them. And uneven as it is, it certainly puts the other animated bear flick out there—the dreadful “Norm of the North”—to shame.