The Kung Fu Panda movies are as roly-poly as their hero Po, who is of course a big fat panda. They’re light on their feet, easy to digest, warm to the stomach. They’re also magnificently animated by DreamWorks, a company that at one point was producing cel-animated classics that could rival the behemoths of Disney. Now we get Kung Fu Panda 3, and it’s expectedly a very joyous adventure even though it may not carry the same delightful heft of the first two pictures.
Po (Jack Black) is by now a fully trained kung fu panda, which means he can somersault and leap and twirl with the best of them. This, as a running gag, works, because it is worryingly difficult to believe a real panda as fat as Po could possibly do anything remotely close to what he does in this movie. The power of animation — and of the movies by extension — resides in our innate ability to suspend disbelief and submit ourselves to be fully entertained by fantasy.
Po’s mentor, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), decides it is time to hand the reins of teacherhood to his successor, in much the same way that Hoffman’s earlier character, Mr. Magorium, saw the end coming. Since Po is the Dragon Warrior (and not, notably, the Panda Warrior), he is Shifu’s pick, much to the fear and disgust of Shifu’s number one team, the Furious Five. Po begins teaching, but is such a novice that his students leave the sessions with fractured hips instead of gained wisdom.
Alas, Po fears he is not cut out to be the Panda/Dragon Warrior, and retreats to his father’s noodle bar for solace (it is worth pointing out, in case this is your first Kung Fu Panda movie, that Po’s father is a goose; adoptive, of course). At the bar, his peace is interrupted by another panda who claims Po is his real son. Strange, considering pandas are thought to be extinct in this movie’s universe. This sets up the potentially damaging situation in which two dads fight over the same son, but it ends up turning into a kind of quasi-same-sex family unit. The PG version, if you will.
Po’s panda dad, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), brings Po back to the secret panda village up in the Chinese mountains to reunite him with his panda roots, which consists mostly of eating exorbitant amounts of dumplings, slurping up limitless miles of noodles, waking up no earlier than noon and rolling where other creatures would walk. This secret village, which sits like a regular Shangri-La in a valley, is easily discovered by Tigress (Angelina Jolie), the leading fighter of the Furious Five; and by Kai (J.K. Simmons), the big bad yak, on his way to seek out and destroy the Dragon Warrior. One wonders why the pandas thought to add the word “secret” in the first place.
Kai is a yak that possesses a key to the spiritual realm, and is able to absorb the chi (inner strength) of his foes and turn them into his zombified minions. He arrives in the mortal world to acquire the chi of the Dragon Warrior, thus making him the strongest animal in all the land. But as far as Kung Fu Panda villains go, Kai is not among the very villainous, nor does he present a real threat to the picturesque world created by the filmmakers. He’s bulky and swift, but is perhaps too soft on the inside and doesn’t accompany his dramatic entrances with a weighty purpose. I much preferred the tiger and peacock that came before.
The crux of Kung Fu Panda 3 involves Po’s self-discovery, a journey with special little details that I will leave for you to find out on your own. I had a good time with this, as I had with the first two movies. There’s nothing to wrap your mind around. No rumbling philosophical questions that need answering. Just a big cuddly panda, his inexplicable fighting skills, his enormous appetite, and a world that needs his protection. It’s all as absurd as it sounds.