"Kung Fu Panda 3," the latest installment in the mega-successful animated film series, brings back the chubby, chop-sockying black-and-white bear, Po, and his familiar cohorts in a beautifully rendered, lovingly constructed action-comedy that's sure to please kids and adults alike.
This time out, Po (voiced by Jack Black), the legendary if slightly hapless Dragon Warrior, is urged by his beloved teacher, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), to take the elder's place as the kung fu instructor for the Valley of Peace. But when Po attempts to train his friends, a.k.a. the Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross) — he proves not quite ready for prime time.
Enter Po's long-lost biological father, Li (Bryan Cranston), who's somehow tracked down his son and proves a remarkable surprise to Po. They instantly bond — Po's taken by how alike they are — which leaves Po's adoptive dad, a noodle purveying goose named Mr. Ping (James Hong), on the sidelines, but only briefly. This familial triangle provides ongoing wit and a few nice lessons along the way.
Li takes Po to visit his home in the secret Panda Village and formally introduce his son to all things panda: cookie and dumpling devouring, rolling and bouncing (why walk?), and sleeping late. Po even experiences the charms of flirtatious ribbon-dancer Mei Mei (Kate Hudson).
Hovering over these more jubilant proceedings is the dastardly Kai (J.K. Simmons), a spirit warrior locked in an ancient battle with Po's benevolent mentor, the tortoise Oogway (Randall Duk Kim). The blade-wielding Kai has been stealing the chi (energy) from thousands of kung fu masters in the otherworldly Spirit Realm and turning them into fierce jade zombies.
Now, massively energized, Kai's headed to Earth to extract the chi from the Furious Five and, ultimately, Po. Needless to say, it won't happen as easily as Kai may think. But Po and his fellow pandas and pals must undergo their share of mental and physical training (cue the montages!) before facing off against their power-mad enemy and his minions.
If that sounds like a lot of plot to swallow, writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, reprising their duties from the first two films, unfurl the narrative with buoyant clarity, gentle charm and much endearing (read: sweetly hokey) humor. The tale's "be yourself" mantra, though nothing new, is also well used.
Directors Jennifer Yuh (she also helmed "Panda 2") and Alessandro Carloni fill their crisp, richly detailed frames with buckets of color, energy and magic. The depiction of the lush Panda Village and the ethereal Spirit Realm are particularly impressive, as is the dazzling climactic battle between Po and Kai. Pacing is generally swift, though a few quick midsection snips wouldn't have hurt.
As for the 3-D effects, they're by no means essential to the film's enjoyment. Still, if you do spring for the ticket surcharge, there are several depth-perception pleasures to be had.
The actors, especially Black, Cranston and Hong, provide terrific vocal support for their highly expressive characters. But please, let's give that Top 40 chestnut "Kung Fu Fighting" a rest!
'Kung Fu Panda 3'
MPAA Rating: PG, for martial arts action and some mild rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: In general release.