So fat and cute, yet so lethal. Jack Black, Academy Award winners Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, J. K. Simmons and Academy Award nominee Bryan Cranston lend their voices to DreamWorks’s sequel Kung Fu Panda 3.
Cast of Characters:
Po – voiced by Jack Black
Master Tigress – voiced by Angelina Jolie
Master Shifu – voiced by Dustin Hoffman
Master Monkey – voiced by Jackie Chan
Master Mantis – voiced by Seth Rogen
Master Viper – voiced by Lucy Liu
Master Crane – voiced by David Cross
Li Shan – voiced by Bryan Cranston
Mei Mei – voiced by Kate Hudson
Kai – voiced by J. K. Simmons
Mr. Ping – voiced by James Hong
Grand Master Oogway – voiced by Randall Duk Kim
Director – Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni
Screenplay – Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger
Producer – Melissa Cobb
Rated PG for martial arts action and some mild rude humor
With Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) finally retiring, the time has come for him to pass on the role of teacher to one his students, and he has chosen Po (voiced by Jack Black) to be his successor, a choice that surprises Po and all of the Furious Five members – Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan), Mantis (voiced by Seth Rogen), Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu) and Crane (voiced by David Cross).
Of course, it doesn’t take long for Po to realize that teaching kung fu isn’t quite the gravy shift he’d like it to be and after injuring each of the Furious Five during training, he finds himself overwhelmed. But his bad day is quickly turned around when after returning home to his adoptive father Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong) he meets another panda named Li Shan (voiced by Bryan Cranston) who is revealed to be Po’s biological father.
Not too long after their joyous reunion, the Valley of Peace is suddenly attacked by former Kung Fu Masters who appear to be hypnotized under a spell. That spell that is soon discovered to be controlled by Kai (voiced by J. K. Simmons), a centuries-old evil spirit warrior who is determined to steal all of the warriors’ ch’i and can be only be defeated by a master of true ch’i.
Kung Fu Panda 3 had one goal to make – don’t suck like Norm of the North. Just ending up as mediocre cash grab would still make this a triumphant success compared to that God awful polar bear cartoon, which set the bar for animated film’s this year so low, DreamWorks Animation could practically stroll effortlessly right over it.
That may explain why they moved their release date up from later this year in March to this January. They figured following an animated crap-tastrophe like Norm of the North, they could make out like a bandit.
Even with films like Shrek 2 and How to Train Your Dragon 2 included in their filmography, DreamWorks hasn’t always had success with sequels. Shrek the Third and Shrek Forever After were letdowns and the Madagascar franchise as a whole has been mediocre (though, to that franchise’s credit, I was pleasantly surprised by their spin-off, Penguins of Madagascar). Kung Fu Panda 2, while not as good as its predecessor, was still a solid followup, and now with this third film, a mild improvement over the second, the series succeeds at what Shrek couldn’t in putting together a consistently entertaining franchise. Both Shrek and Shrek 2 may have been the better one-two punch, but as a whole, I have to say Kung Fu Panda is the better series.
Co-directors Alessandro Carloni (longtime story artist for DreamWorks) and Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2), along with co-writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, provide ample amount of spotlight moments to each of the characters backing up Jack Black, whose zany comic energy has made him perfect for the martial arts fighting panda from day one. Black’s Po may be the endearing star of the film, but Dustin Hoffman is a deadpan delight as Master Shifu, Angelina Jolie brings stoic calmness to Master Tigress and in smaller doses, Seth Rogen and David Cross make the most of their limited time as Mantis and Crane.
As the new additions, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston slips comfortably back into the comic chops he showed during his Seinfeld and Malcolm in the Middle days, Kate Hudson is hilarious as the flamboyant panda ribbon dancer Mei Mei and a scene-chewing J. K. Simmons is able to be an imposing villain, but also blend his menace with just enough humor to not be too terrifying for the little ones (a recurring joke of his has him always priding himself on being the famed warrior Kai, only to have his boastings fall on the unknowing ears of his foes).
Packing A-list stars into your animated films can sometimes backfire (Shark Tale and Flushed Away), but, and this is no surprise being the franchise’s third film, the each of stars fit their parts like a glove. In fact, it wasn’t until halfway through the film that I realized it was Simmons voicing the villain.
With so many characters and mini-plots crammed into one 90-minute film, over-stuffing could’ve become a major issue for Kung Fu Panda 3, but Carloni and Yuh Nelson keep things moving at brisk pace, and do so without sacrificing character or story. The jokes move fast from one zinger to the next, and the messaging is never overbearing (I can only praise “Be yourself!” and “Family, FTW!” for so long before those after-school specials start to wear themselves thin), fitting just fine amid all the requisite silliness. There’s a poignancy Carloni, Yuh Nelson, Aibel and Berger provide to the relationships Po shares with Mr. Ping and Li Shan (a scene where he explains to Po what separated them all those years ago is heartbreaking) that make for some of the film’s stronger thematic moments. For as much as fathers have been getting crapped on as incompetent boobs in both sitcoms and films, it’s nice to see fatherhood, both biological and adoptive, get such a heartfelt tribute.
Visually, Kung Fu Panda 3 boasts a diverse range of animated styles that meshes together beautifully, from the vibrant golds, greens and reds of the Chinese Spirit Realm and to the lush blues and pinks of the Shangri-La style secret village of Li Shan and his fellow pandas. As this is the third film, it’s safe to say the mix of traditional Asian artwork, thrillingly designed fight sequences and strikingly detailed characters won’t wow the moviegoers, but the work by Carloni and Yuh Nelson’s team of animators is impressive nonetheless.
While, as the third film, Kung Fu Panda 3 obviously doesn’t have the freshness that came with the first film, it still boasts a terrific A-list voice cast and some of the finest animated work that DreamWorks Animation has provided. And, on top of that, its universal appeal will please audiences of all ages. Kids will love the goofy antics and the heartfelt themes of family will resonate with their parents. DreamWorks has certainly put together films that have matched the Kung Fu Panda films, but as an overall franchise, in terms of consistent quality, I think it’s safe to say the three-peat of Po and his kung fu fighting friends is the best the studio’s done to date.
I give Kung Fu Panda 3 an A- (★★★½ ).
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