KUNG FU PANDA 3 – a review by JJ Heaton

Starring: Jack Black (School of Rock), Bryan Cranston (Godzilla), Dustin Hoffman (Midnight Cowboy), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Angelina Jolie (Wanted), James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China), Seth Rogen (The Interview), David Cross (Arrested Development), Lucy Liu (Kill Bill), Jackie Chan (Rush Hour)

Directors: Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2) & Alessandro Carloni

Writers: Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger (Monsters vs. Aliens)

Runtime: 1 hour 35 minutes

Release Date: 29 January (US), 11 March (UK)

Kung Fu Panda is not a name that inspires confidence upon first utterance but, like Po himself, it’s a film that quickly proves it’s far better than any reasonable expectation. Mixing comedy and action with Eastern influences in animation, choreography and philosophy, it’s a movie that’s as inspiring as it is entertaining and gets better with every subsequent viewing. Its sequel was an even bigger triumph, upping the ante in every conceivable way whilst also adding greater emotional heft to the story. It also left on somewhat of a cliffhanger and now, nearly five years later, the answers have finally arrived in the form of Kung Fu Panda 3.

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There is very a much a formula to a Kung Fu Panda story: Po is tasked with a challenge he internally struggles to combat, a threat rises that requires he complete that task, through spirituality and determination he overcomes his barrier, and then defeats the bad guy with his new-found enlightenment. The third instalment follows that structure to the letter and it is a little predictable at this point, but each film differentiates itself by teaching a different message through that narrative. The first film was about discovering hidden potential, the second about harnessing emotion, and the third is about finding identity and bettering others through their strengths rather than yours. Yes, it’s still mainly a film for kids with lots of silly jokes and cute characters, but there are deeper themes underneath for the older audience to appreciate. Though the story is pretty familiar by now, Kung Fu Panda 3 is a very appropriate capper to the trilogy with callbacks to the first two films that wrap up all the loose ends and bring newfound clarity to the series as a whole. I don’t believe it was planned like this from the start, but it’s been done in an elegant and seamless way that helps bring firm closure to the saga. I wouldn’t say there’s no chance of there ever being another film, but if this is the last we ever see of Po and The Furious Five, it’d be an appropriate note to go out on.

Jack Black may not have the greatest range, but in this type of role he excels. Po remains a lovable and endearing character even still, and it’s amazing that the series has managed to keep him so without diminishing all of the character development he’s gone through in the series; I think the key is that he’s goofy and affable, but never idiotic or tiresome. The film is mostly focused on his newfound relationship with his biological father Li (Cranston), which puts a strain on his adoptive father Mr. Ping (Hong), and the threesome bounce off each other incredibly well. Hong is as great as ever in this role, injecting the energetic earnestness he’s always brought to these movies, and it’s great to see how he deals with having to finally support Po rather than simply coddle him. Cranston gets a chance to stretch his comedy chops again after a series of dramatic roles, and he’s excellent at playing the laidback man-child you’d expect Po’s father to be. That’s not to say Cranston is all fun, as he does bring plenty of dramatic weight to the role when called for, and if the series continues I hope he’ll stay a major part of it. J.K. Simmons’ villain is perhaps the least interesting of the series’ antagonists thus far compared to Ian McShane and Gary Oldman, but he does make for a visually interesting foe and Simmons does milk all the humour that can be found in a legendary villain that no one in the story even remembers. Master Shifu (Hoffman) and The Furious Five (Jolie, Rogen, Cross, Liu, Chan) take mostly a backseat in the story this time around, but many of them do have their moments and all of their performers provide excellent voice work as usual.

The Kung Fu Panda films have always drawn as much influence from Eastern cinema as they have Western, and that is indeed also true of this third instalment. The energetic action choreography the series is known for is as much of a spectacle to watch as it’s always been, mixing in some more mystical elements to shake up the formula and further add to the insanity. The animation is crisp and beautifully flowing, whether gripped within a fight or simply admiring the scenery. Like Kung Fu Panda 2 did, the film also makes excellent use of 2D animation reminiscent of Chinese art that further adds to the cultural authenticity. Hans Zimmer’s music blends east and west beautifully into an action-packed score, and Dreamworks once again take full advantage of the capabilities of 3D to make it worth that extra few bucks for the experience.

Whilst I ultimately preferred its immediate predecessor, Kung Fu Panda 3 is still a more than worthy sequel that remembers everything that worked before. It doesn’t quite have the originality of the first film or the boldness of the second, but it still has heart where it counts and serves as a perfect wrap-up if this is to be the final instalment. Dreamworks’ output can be spotty in terms of quality, but when they get it right they really get it right and I can only hope that they can cap off their How to Train Your Dragon franchise with as much panache.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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