Jack Black is back, once more channeling his endless enthusiasm and gift for goofiness into the lovable Po in “Kung Fu Panda 3.” There’s an undeniable joy in the spectacle and silliness of DreamWorks Animation’s feisty franchise, but its third film stalls out on the story front, and simply piles on the pandas.
Having twice conquered the world’s most dangerous foes, Po has fully proved himself as the Dragon Warrior. The Furious Five are proud to back him, while the village and his noodle-slinging dad Mr. Ping (James Hong) cheer his every move and lunch order. Po’s biggest trouble is that self-doubt has resurfaced as Master Shifu tasks him with taking over his team’s training. Well, that is until long-dead kung fu masters start popping up as battle puppets of the power-hungry Kai (J.K. Simmons on irritable grumble mode). Having escaped the spirit realm, this malevolent master is snatching the chi of others, stealing their power, and adding them to his sprawling army of “jade zombies.”
It basically boils down to an evil dude escaping hell and enslaving souls to achieve world domination. But the shrewd script by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger delicately ducks words like “death,” “hell” and “suicide mission,” and indulge in the lighter fantasy elements. Here, the zombies look like shiny jade statues come to life, so even the transformation of some familiar characters isn’t too traumatic for young audiences. But this ongoing battle is just a small part of “Kung Fu Panda 3.” Overpowering the narrative is Po getting in touch with his panda heritage.
Fatefully, just as Po’s upcoming showdown tilts him into a full self-doubt spiral, his long-lost father Li (Bryan Cranston) appears. And wouldn’t you know it, he says his hidden panda tribe has exactly the skill set Po must learn to topple this worrisome warrior. So while the Furious Five is otherwise occupied in battle, Po, Li and Mr. Ping travel to a panda village where just about every Po quirk, from guzzling down dumplings to detesting stairs, is made common. This offers some solid opportunities for slapstick and silliness. (There’s also a tedious and overlong Kate Hudson cameo, where she plays an aggressively flirtatious, ribbon-dancing panda.) But it all feels like fluffy framing to the thin father-father-son plot.
Having raised Po, Mr. Ping feels threatened by Li’s arrival, and distrusts this big-mouthed galoot who seems to be stealing his son. Meanwhile, Li struggles with what it means to be a father as his boy faces down his deadliest opponent yet. Cranston brings a verve to his performance that plays well in its lighter moments, but grumbles low and poignant in its tender spots. A high-strung Hong, who’s been a treasure in each of these films, is a brilliant foil to easy-going Li, yet grounds the pair’s pivotal heart-to-heart moment with aplomb. And Black bounces off of both of them with the buoyancy of panda’s belly-bumping; the film’s heart thumps loudest here. Yet it feels hastily wedged among silly set pieces and a cavalcade of kooky new characters.
It’s frustrating that the story works so hard to put Po back in familiar territory — the underdog one last time — instead of pushing to exploring new ground. Between this bending over backwards and the panda shenanigans, there’s not much room for the battle between good and evil, or for Poe’s big moment of self-discovery.
Although the plot lacks the nuance and depth of the first film, “Kung Fu Panda 3” is nonetheless enjoyable. Directors Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carloni have crafted a gorgeous movie out of the bold colors, dazzling blend of animation styles, highly detailed character designs and ambitious action sequences that have made the franchise a worldwide phenomenon.
In short, it’s a totally beautiful, pretty fun retread.
“Kung Fu Panda 3” opens Friday nationwide.