In the time that’s passed since the events of Kung Fu Panda 2, Po has happily been protecting the Valley of Peace as the Dragon Warrior, easily defeating his enemies and enjoying his status as a celebrity. Things are turned upside down for him when Master Shifu informs Po that he is retiring, giving his position as instructor of the Furious Five over to him. Believing he doesn’t have the knowledge required for being an effective teacher, Po tries to turn down the job, but an even bigger change is ahead for him: his father Li, who he thought was killed by the peacock Lord Shen, is actually alive…and living in a village full of pandas! Challenges arise, though, with the arrival General Kai, a 500-year-old water bison who’s been robbing kung fu masters of their chi in order to make himself invincible. Will Po be able to defend his friends both new and old from Kai’s wrath?

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You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again: the Kung Fu Panda movies are among the best that DreamWorks Animation has ever produced. They may not be quite up there with the How to Train Your Dragon films (arguably the jewels in the studio’s crown), but with breathtaking animation, lovable characters, and great action, they come pretty darn close. With that kind of a reputation surrounding the franchise, eyebrows were raised when Fox decided to release Kung Fu Panda 3 during the supposed “dumping ground” at the box office that is January, but whatever the reasons for the decision (which probably have to do with avoiding direct competition from Disney’s Zootopia in March), they fortunately don’t seem to have to do with the movie’s quality. The film is warm, funny, and full of heart, even if some might complain that the story is a bit too “familiar” this time around.

That “familiarity,” if we can call it that, comes from the fact that Po is essentially going through the same character arc that he went through before. In the last two movies, Po is charged with a task, lacks the self-confidence needed to pull it off, and then finds the strength within himself just in time to save the day. And, with that in mind, things are no different in Kung Fu Panda 3, with Po doubting that he has the strength or wisdom needed to be worthy of mentoring his friends who he both loves and respects, only to realize that he actually is capable of doing that when the panda village needs his guidance to survive. So, the argument could be made that Po is learning the same lesson in each movie, but I would argue that that’s not necessarily a fair way of looking at it. In real life, we are constantly changing and evolving as people, always discovering new things about ourselves and, yes, having our old insecurities return to bite us even after we think we’ve overcome them. More importantly, we are also in need of re-learning things that we already know, often in the need of striving to make ourselves better than we are. In this regard, one of the real strengths of this trilogy has been its ability to include positive messages for its audience in an effective and emotionally inspirational way, even if that has required the franchise to “repeat itself” a little.

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Another consistency in the series has been the animation, and Kung Fu Panda 3 is no exception. Simply put, the film looks gorgeous. The movie’s major new location is the panda village, and it’s absolutely beautiful, with colors that are lush and dazzling and landscapes that are massive and almost awe-inspiring. The bigger the screen you see this on, the better. The character animation is also strong, especially during the fight scenes, which are staged in such a way that you never miss a punch or kick (in fact, it’s a bit of a shame that the film is notably less action-driven than the previous entries). Finally, there’s a dazzling sequence in which a character’s backstory is explained in the style of Chinese handscroll painting. All in all, Kung Fu Panda 3 might be worth the price of admission just for its visuals alone.

There’s probably not much of a point in spending too much time on the film’s returning voice cast. They’re all great in their roles, though a special shout-out must be given to Jack Black, who is so good at playing Po by now that it’s hard to tell which lines were written for him and which ones were ad-libbed. As for the movie’s new characters, it should come as no surprise to most that Bryan Cranston is wonderful as Po’s father Li. A far cry from his performance as Walter White, Cranston’s voice is not just heartfelt and full of love, but also displaying a hint of pain, fearful of losing the son he once thought was gone all over again. Similarly, J.K. Simmons is also a standout as Kai. The Kung Fu Panda movies have always had terrific villains, and Simmons relishes the role, making the character unexpectedly funny as someone who resents not being given the credit he feels he deserves.

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If there’s one element of the new cast that’s confusing, though, it’s Kate Hudson as Mei Mei, a ribbon dancing panda and potential love interest for Po. Originally, the character was meant to be played by Pitch Perfect’s Rebel Wilson, but she left the production at the last minute, supposedly due to “scheduling conflicts.” This seems unlikely, especially since in the finished movie, Mei Mei probably has about twelve lines at most…and most of them seem like they were written with Wilson’s distinctive voice in mind.  Now, there’s technically nothing “wrong” with Hudson’s performance per se, but she also doesn’t make much of an impact, either, and one can’t help but wonder if the character would’ve been more memorable if Wilson had stayed aboard (as an aside, it’s also a little disappointing that Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu–my favorite character in the first film–once again isn’t given much screen time here).

Overall, however, Kung Fu Panda 3 is a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, and while I suppose there’s still room for more to be made (we are getting Toy Story 4 in a couple of years, after all), it really does feel like “the end” of Po’s story. With hilarious comedy, great characters, and a heart as big as its panda hero’s tummy, fans of this highly entertaining series should be very pleased indeed.

(Note: there is no surprise at the end of the credits of this movie, despite an astonishingly long crawl of names that goes on for roughly fifteen minutes, so you can save your bladder the agony and leave the theater early if you have to)

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Kung Fu Panda 3
DreamWorks Animation
January 29th, 2016
95 minutes
Rated PG
Directed by Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carloni