Rated PG for martial arts action and some mild rude humor.
Running time: 95 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
So vividly immersive is “Kung Fu Panda 3” — so vibrant, so tactile — it will make you feel as if you’ve stepped into a fully realized world. And then once you’ve stepped out, you’ll be craving dumplings.
At least Nicolas and I were after attending a matinee screening of the latest DreamWorks Animation adventure. And the dumpling itself — the way it’s used and what it represents — is a perfect microcosm of the movie as a whole. Dumplings function in myriad ways here: as fuel, as incentive, in training and in battle as actual ammunition. They may look soft on the outside but they’re filled with delicious and perhaps unexpectedly powerful stuff on the inside. And they provide both a connection to the past as well as simple enjoyment in the present.
But this is not a restaurant review and I am not a food critic. So I should stick to what I know: “Kung Fu Panda 3” is stunningly beautiful to look at with images in both 3-D and 2-D animation. But it’s also a complete blast, and it manages to have a surprising amount of emotional heft without being heavy-handed. The film from co-directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh benefits from a wide array of styles and textures that create the look of specific worlds yet work seamlessly together, but it also features a lush color palette ranging from bold reds, greens and golds to delicate pastels. It also has great visual flair, including energetic use of split screens during training montages and battle sequences.
Visuals alone are not enough, though, as you know. “Kung Fu Panda 3” has a story to tell that’s inspiring without being mawkish. It’s the classic student-becomes-the-teacher scenario, a staple within the martial arts genre. It’s about learning to embrace who you are, being your best self and celebrating the powerful collaborative spirit that diverse talents can provide — all worthwhile messages for young viewers, which returning screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger manage to impart with great authenticity and balance of tone. No one is reinventing the wheel here, but the wheel that emerges provides a enjoyable ride.
“Kung Fu Panda 3” is a mostly playful exercise, as you can imagine any film will be in which Jack Black provides the voice of a roly-poly, man-child bear. But when you have a voice cast full of serious actors as you do here, they bring real craft to their performances and create moments of genuine poignancy. Besides Black, returning to star as the ever-enthusiastic Po, there are the new additions of Bryan Cranston as Po’s long-lost father and J.K. Simmons as a villainous yak from the spirit realm.
If that sounds silly, that’s because it is, and Simmons has a couple of amusing running gags to enjoy here — but he’s also, you know, truly evil. I’ve been talking a lot about the film’s emotional elements, but fundamentally, “Kung Fu Panda 3” is just flat-out funny. I vaguely recall the previous two films in the series from 2008 and 2011, but this latest installment was a real delight.
This time, Po’s mentor, the diminutive Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), tells Po it’s time for him to step into his destined role as the Dragon Warrior by serving as teacher to the members of his own team: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross). At the same time, Po’s father, Li, arrives looking for the son he lost many years ago — which makes Po’s adoptive father, the noodle-making goose Mr. Ping (James Hong), feel insecure and threatened.
But Po will need everyone’s help — including a clan of pandas who’ve long been living in a mystical, mountaintop land — to fight the power-hungry Kai (Simmons), who seeks to rule all by stealing the chi of kung fu masters across China. This may sounds more complicated than it actually is; basically, “Kung Fu Panda 3” is about teamwork, and about trusting that the power you need has been within you all along.
Not a bad message for kids to hear — and a solid topic to discuss over several orders of steaming dumplings afterward.