Who didn’t fall in love with Panda Po when “Kung Fu Panda” was released in 2008? Charming, funny and filled with action and antics led to pure entertainment that touched the kid inside each of us, while introducing us to what have become beloved characters premised on a goose named Mr. Ping raising an abandoned young Panda named Po. Completing the picture was welcome and wonderful thematics and messaging about family and friends. When “Kung Fu Panda 2″ rolled around in 2011, so excited and enthralled with the ongoing adventures of Po, now also known as Dragon Warrior, my then 5-year old nephew insisted on writing his own review of the film. Striking was his greatest takeaway – “Panda Po loves his dad and I love my dad.” It was true. And this sentiment was echoed by many children and franchise fans alike.
Between the first and second films, there was distinct character growth and discovery as Panda Po started to come into his own, wanting to make his dad proud as he became “Dragon Warrior.” And now, with “Kung Fu Panda 3″, Po truly is Dragon Warrior, but now learns the real meaning of family and extended family when his panda birth father Li finds him and takes him to “The Panda Village”. But finding Po’s birth father and genetic family doesn’t mean we forget about Mr. Ping as co-writers, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, together with co-directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni (all returning for this third installment) expand on the meaning of family and fatherhood, showing us that a parent’s love never ends, even when your child is the Dragon Warrior, and that two dads is even better than one! The result is nothing short of fun, funny and family love from beginning to end, making “Kung Fu Panda 3″ the “best panda ever”!
Since being adopted by Mr. Ping, Po has been happily living a noodle-loving (and slightly laid back) life in their Chinese village in the Valley of Peace. He has learned martial-arts on the path to his destiny and developed friendships with fellow martial arts peacekeepers known as “The Furious Five”, Tigress, Mantis, Crane, Monkey and Viper, all under the tutelage of Master Shifu. But now there is a threat to Po’s village. An evil supernatural horned bull of a villain named Kai has come back to the earthly realm to steal or extract the “chi” of all martial arts masters. For those not in the Panda Po know, chi is the energy that flows through all things and by extracting all the chi from all the martial arts masters, Kai would forever remain in the mortal realm and rule the world. He would be virtually unstoppable; that is unless a true “Master of Chi” was around, as only he has the power to stop Kai. Unfortunately, neither the Furious Five nor Po are true masters of chi, for to be a true master, one must know truly know oneself.
In Po’s case, part of his journey to truly knowing himself involves getting back to his real panda roots. So how lucky for all when his birth father Li appears, ready to take Po home to Panda Village and help him to find that chi. But there’s more to Li than meets the eye and the ever protective dad that he is, Mr. Ping isn’t letting his son be taken away by a stranger, so he smuggles himself along on the journey.
The film’s greatest emotional depth and texture develops through Li and Mr. Ping as each wants to claim Po as his, Po wants to love both and at the core, both fathers want the best for their son and will do anything to help him, no matter what the cost to themselves.
As to be expected, using his supernatural powers and some very cool looking antagonistic sidekicks who are transformed into jade once falling prey to Kai’s powers, Kai tracks Po to the Panda Village. But you know that saying, “it takes a village”? Well, it really does in “Kung Fu Panda 3″ as under Po’s training and direction, the inhabitants of Panda Village stand up and fight for their own chi and inner panda power! But does Po, The Dragon Warrior, find his true self in the process, as that is the only thing that can possibly defeat Kai?
You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. Your heart will swell at every passing turn. This is hands down the strongest emotional arc of the KFP franchise and the one with the most powerful messaging about growth and self-discovery. What a leap forward for DreamWorks Animation with storytelling! Not only do we see solid story and character development as the franchise progresses, but we see the same within the filmmaking team and their own skill sets, the principals of whom have been part of Po’s world for more than ten years. While retaining the father-son dynamic, “Kung Fu Panda 3″ expands on what precedes it and tacitly speaks to today’s blended families and ever-changing definition of a family. Thanks to the work of Aibel and Berger and the strong direction of Yuh and Carloni, this is storytelling at its finest; the emotional beats, friendships, a parent’s love for a child and the lengths they will go to love them, support them, protect them. This is the real deal; a complete package that culminates with themes of personal and individual growth and challenging one’s self to be the best that YOU can be. The messaging of “Kung Fu Panda 3” is panda perfect. Ideal for kids and adults alike, but shown and told in this fashion and with a lot of humor, kids as young as 3 and 4 years of age will get it (probably better than some adults out there).
The mythology that is expanded upon through Kai’s story is well thought out both in story and in corresponding animation that will have kids and adults alike wide-eyed with mouth agape at the wonders that unfold on screen. (And yes, some great messaging here about good versus evil and that greed is not good.)
With “Kung Fu Panda 3″, DreamWorks Animation has finally found its true voice. Often developing animated films that look and feel as if “trying” to imitate Pixar, here DreamWorks and the KFP3 team come into their own delivering animation that is outstanding. A beautiful meld of different animation styles, notably that in the spirit world and the watercolor/pen & ink flashbacks, is stunning, right down to the look of watercolors on textured paper. And talk about a leap forward with “finishing”! One need look no further than the various jade representations within the film. Brilliant look in color and design, so much so that on viewing the film, I went home and looked at some of my own jade jewelry as comparison to what animators have been able to create on screen.
Color is king with “Kung Fu Panda 3″ and never moreso than its use within the production design of the martial arts temple in the Valley of Peace, the panda village and spirit world. The martial arts temple is meticulous in its detail and design, infusing vibrant reds and golds into the palette exquisitely capturing the history and mysticism of the Orient, while panda village has pops of color complementing the beauteous pinks of cherry blossoms. The spirit world dazzles with a golden pink tinged palette that becomes even more breathtaking as cherry blossoms transform into a gateway between the mortal and spirit realms. Vibrant greens saturate the panda village landscape while the use of luxurious blacks in the design of some 200+ pandas are rich and textured- and each with different looks and personalities!
Use of light within the animation layout design is textured as are effects such as clouds in the sky that circle mountain tops. (Although two completely different styles and formats, the look achieved here is similar in its effect with this animation format to that of Pixar with the volumetric cloud design in “The Good Dinosaur”, thus adding a new dimensionality to the visuals.) The cohesiveness and synergy of animation, production design, color and lighting is the best of any DreamWorks Animation film to date.
Action choreography, as well as roly-poly panda fun, hit their marks at every turn and are, in all honesty, quite detailed in their presentation and resulting entertainment.
A real surprise is the score. There is an epic richness that belies it being composed by Hans Zimmer.
Of course, voicing is key to the emotion and personality of each character. Returning are Jack Black as Panda Po aka Dragon Warrior, Dustin Hoffman as Shifu, Angelina Jolie-Pitt as Tigress, Jackie Chan as Monkey, Seth Rogen as Mantis, Lucy Liu as Viper, David Cross as Crane, James Hong as Mr. Ping and Randall Duk Kim as the master of all masters, Oogway. Each is as dynamic and character satisfying as ever. But new to “Kung Fu Panda 3″ are Bryan Cranston as Po’s panda dad Li and J.K. Simmons as the evil Kai. Talk about voicing excellence! And yes, you see correctly on the end credits, the Jolie-Pitt kids get into the action lending their voices to various pandas as does Kate Hudson with her voicing of Mei-Mei, a lady panda with eyes for Po.
Be it Panda-Rific, Perfectly Panda or Panda-monium, one thing is for certain when we’re talking about “Kung Fu Panda 3″: BEST. PANDA. EVER.
Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni
Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger
Voice Casting: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Cranston, J.K. Simmons, Angelina Jolie, James Hong, jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Randall Duk Kim, Kate Hudson