When I came across a trailer for “Kung Fu Panda 3” a few months ago, I was surprised that DreamWorks Animation was creating a third entry in the beloved series. Of course, it should not have been a shock: “Kung Fu Panda” is one of the few financially successful franchises that has enabled DreamWorks to cling on for dear life in the competition against Pixar and that company’s ever-growing popularity. After almost five years, “Kung Fu Panda 3” brings the famous Po back into Hollywood on another adventure. And, luckily for DreamWorks, the third time is indeed the charm.
“Kung Fu Panda 3” kicks off in the Spirit Realm, where Grand Master Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Sim) duels an ancient warrior, Kai (J.K. Simmons). Kai has been stealing powers, known as “Chi,” from martial arts masters for decades so he can find his way to the Mortal World and reclaim the power to which he is entitled. Oogway warns Kai that no matter how powerful he becomes, the Dragon Warrior will stop him.
Meanwhile, in the Mortal World, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) announces his retirement from teaching Po (Jack Black) and the Furious Five, a group consisting of Master Crane (David Cross), Master Mantis (Seth Rogen), Master Monkey (Jackie Chan), Master Tigress (Angelina Jolie), and Master Viper (Lucy Liu). Without Shifu, Po, the Dragon Warrior, is now responsible for training the Furious Five. Shortly after Shifu’s retirement, a panda named Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) visits the village claiming to be Po’s biological father. Po learns that a group of pandas are still living in a secret village, but before he can find out more, the conversation is interrupted by a group of jade-colored zombies under Kai’s control. Po, the only one believed capable of defeating Kai, joins Li Shan in traveling back to the secret panda village and becoming a master of true Chi.
While “Kung Fu Panda 3” contains multiple subplots, the movie focuses on the themes of ambition and identity. Early in the film, Master Shifu tells Po, who feels disappointed and hopeless after his first day of teaching, “If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be better than what you are.” “But I like who I am!” Po replies. “You don’t even know who you are!” is Shifu’s response. This brief dialogue becomes the main message investigated throughout the movie’s 95-minute running time, both in the primary story arc and in the aforementioned subplots.
In regards to storytelling, “Kung Fu Panda 3” is by no means as revolutionary or ground-breaking as Pixar movies often are, but it maintains consistency in the plot development without dragging out or exhausting its story. Moreover, the fact that it’s targeted at younger audiences didn’t prevent me from genuinely enjoying the film. “Kung Fu Panda 3” is blessed with a script full of funny jokes and characters that will surely keep you smiling, if not laughing, throughout the majority of the movie. The highly talented cast deserves the most credit for doing justice to each and every character. Notably, Black does a fantastic job bringing Po to front and center, ensuring that the audience finds him simultaneously humorous, heroic, kind, and relatable.
DreamWorks goes with the animated-movie grain by utilizing rapidly advancing technology to achieve visual excellence and incredibly intricate designs. Set in ancient China, the world of “Kung Fu Panda 3” is designed to mimic the magnificence of the natural world, whether that means snow-covered mountains or glowingly colorful landscapes. Moreover, each character is masterfully designed and animated, with detailed movements and textures which, when blended with eye-popping 3-D, makes it hard to resist reaching out to touch the furry Po on the screen. Kudos to DreamWorks for not flooding the movie with gimmicky effects or using visuals to recklessly cover the plot shortcomings.
“Kung Fu Panda 3” is a welcome return of the well-received franchise, proving that it’s never too late for a new entry as long as it brings the qualities that earned it fame in the first place. In a recent interview with “Empire,” DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg confirmed the possibility of a forth chapter in the series. “Kung Fu Panda actually has six chapters to it, and we’ve mapped that out over the years,” he explained.
While DreamWorks’ recent attempts to establish new franchises have not resulted in anything of note, “Kung Fu Panda” will continue its journey to the screens. Here’s hoping that it will not fall victim to greedy producers, and that it will preserve, if not improve, the aspects that made audiences return to theaters five years after its initial installment.