Good-natured, imaginative and graceful, DreamWorksanimation Kung Fu Panda (2008) made a martial arts master out of a stumbling panda and set up a winning, heartfelt franchise. In this third instalment, the filmmakers have embraced consistency in the best way – there is plenty in Kung Fu Panda 3 that echoes the first film and the sequel, but it’s not tired recycling. Instead, the movie deftly reinforces and extends what has gone before.
Kung Fu Panda 3. Photo: Supplied
In the first movie, the panda Po (voiced with great aplomb by Jack Black), dreamt of becoming a martial arts hero; by the end he had found his calling as a Dragon Master, mentored by the diminutive Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). In the second instalment, he took on a more dangerous, explosive enemy. The third film is more light-hearted than the second, but it’s still a story of salvation under pressure.
In every movie, a former ally has gone over to the dark side. This time, it’s the supernatural yak Kai (J.K. Simmons), who spent 500 years in the spirit realm before returning to the mortal world to defeat kung fu masters and assume their powers. He’s a little peeved that no one seems to have heard of him or his many sobriquets – “the Jade Slayer, the Master Of Pain, you might know me as the Beast Of Vengeance” he says huffily – but everything else about his plan for domination seems to be going smoothly. Only Po stands in his way.
Intercut with the drama and action is an origins story in a different emotional register. Po has been brought up by a goose, Ping (the excellent James Hong), whom he regards as his father. This instalment introduces Po’s biological dad, Li Shang (Bryan Cranston), who is keen to introduce his son to his home, a panda Shangri-la full of happy, sleepy dumpling-eaters. Here, Po finally feels at home. “I always felt I wasn’t eating to my full potential,” he says gleefully. But there’s a challenge facing him that will involve his heritage and newfound family. To defeat Kai, he has to make the move from student to teacher.
Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni (from a script by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger) deftly mix comedy, drama, face-offs and teachable moments. Once again, this is an exquisite, visually imaginative production with a distinctive look – fine detail, extravagant landscapes, skilful use of traditional Chinese motifs, painterly interludes, flights into lyrical, dreamlike abstraction. It’s worth seeking out in 3D, because it uses the possibilities so inventively.