“Kung Fu Panda 3” bursts at the seams with exuberant fun for your inner kid at heart. The self-proclaimed “awesomeness” we have missed for too long returns with flair in every possible direction. Its nimble combination of clever humor and endearing heart is undeniable. This is a can’t-miss crowd pleaser that pulses with energy in all the right places.
Set up by the final revelation of “Kung Fu Panda 2,” our hero Po’s biological father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), has journeyed back to the Valley of Peace in search of his long-lost son. Po (Jack Black) is still the popular Dragon Warrior fighting with the protectors of the Furious Five (played with glee by the returning Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Lucy Liu, and Seth Rogan). Their leader, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) encourages Po to take the next step of leadership and become a teacher worthy of replacing himself someday.
Upon his father’s reappearance, Po gravitates to Li, much to the dismay of his adoptive fowl father and noodle chef Mr. Ping (James Hong). At the same time, the bullish Kai (J.K. Simmons), an old rival of Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), descends from the Spirit Realm as a powerful supernatural threat to the Valley. Fixated on absorbing the Chi, or life force, of his opponents, Kai can unleash their captured powers as indomitable jade warriors coupled with own chained twin jade blades. After an initial defeat, Po retreats with Li Shan to the secret mountain haven of the pandas. There, he finds a potential love interest (Kate Hudson) and begins to connect with his roots, all in the hope of learning his true power and potential to defeat Kai.
After an overly dark middle chapter five years ago, “Kung Fu Panda 3” is a vibrant return to form for this franchise. The franchise has retained its original writing team of Jonathan Abel and Glenn Berger. The duo did their best to shed a little dramatic weight from where they left off from “Kung Fu Panda 2.” The third film steers away from most of the pitfalls of manic overstimulation and dilly-dallying subplots. Its tight and simple focus of fatherly themes and self-aware conflict is very effective.
Even more impressive is the overall packaging of “Kung Fu Panda 3.” The animation delivered by DreamWorks has reached a mastery level. Bathed in exemplary 3D, the film’s look is gorgeous from end to end with visual brilliance and detailed textures. Hans Zimmer’s boisterous musical score powers the splendid aesthetics and astonishing kinetic action. Visually and thematically, DreamWorks has a big hit on their hands and one greatly worthy of your own joy and attention.
Lesson #1: Every hero needs a dramatic entrance and exit— Few things make an impression better than a good dramatic entrance or exit. If wrestlers and movie characters can do it, so can Dragon Warriors.
Lesson #2: The combined impact of fathers and father-figures— With the return of Li Shan, Po can now receive a second dose of wisdom, encouragement, teaching, and support after his positive upbringing from Mr. Ping. We should all be so lucky, because the presence of one doesn’t cancel the other. Both men multiply their impact on an impressionable son.
Lesson #3: Finding the internal power of being yourself— This has been the central theme the entire “Kung Fu Panda” trilogy. All of the mantras, proverbs, sayings, quotes, and verses boil down to inner power, inner peace, inner heart, and inner confidence that comes from recognizing and being proud of your identity.