Kung Fu Panda 3: Sequel gives families something fun in slow January

DreamWorks Animation, a studio that’s struggled to find success in the last five years aside from 2014’s How to Train Your Dragon 2, burst back onto the scene in a major way last weekend with the release of Kung Fu Panda 3, which returned unlikely hero Po and his gang of do-gooder friends back to action.

While Pixar has been at the forefront of innovative animation with the visual marvels that were Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, DreamWorks succeeds with a film that looks like a hand-drawn comic book brought to life rather than computer generated cinema.

What makes the Kung Fu Panda series flow – aside from the top-notch animation of course – is the talented and deep cast of voice actors led by the lovable Jack Black as Po.

Black brings such a warm effervescence to the role that it’s nearly impossible for kids and adults alike not to enjoy scenes featuring Po being silly or a tad slow. The effortless way Black is able to elevate the third installment’s poorly written script from Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger well beyond what the film should have been capable of is truly remarkable.

In addition to returning voice talent including Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Seth Rogen, Kung Fu Panda 3 also sports a trio of new characters to the mix with varying degrees of success.

Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, who wowed audiences as a villainous jazz band leader in Whiplash, proves he can bring the bad with only his voice as the evil Kai, a bull on the rampage who comes back from the dead to steal everyone’s chi. As ridiculous as that sounds, Simmons makes the character work by not taking things so seriously and just letting Kai flow out of him. Simmons, an expert character actor, was a pitch perfect choice for the role.

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In the other major plot line of the film, Po finally learns he’s not the last panda on the planet and meets his dad Li, voiced by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, and a host of other pandas, including a pseudo-love interest in Mei Mei, voiced by Kate Hudson.

Of the two, Cranston’s Li is much more successful, mainly because Cranston is given a much wider berth from which to work with and is a central part of moving the story along. Hudson’s Mei Mei feels rather pointless in the grand scheme of things, since directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh opt to back off from a connection between Po and Mei Mei as soon as they establish one. The film would have been better off saving Mei Mei for the inevitable fourth installment and featuring a possible romance storyline front and center.

Look, this is an animated film with a target audience of elementary and early middle school students, so we’re not talking about a future Oscar winner here,
though a nomination for best animated film wouldn’t be out of the question based on the visual merits of the movie alone.

The script is sparse and bland and there’s too many pop culture references (including a homage to Imagine Dragons’ song “I’m So Sorry” and a way outdated and super obvious “Kung Fu Fighting” leading into the credits), but the third installment lives up to expectations and more.

It’s early in the year, but Kung Fu Panda 3 is one of 2016’s best releases and something children and adults of all ages can enjoy together.

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