The previous installments of the Kung Fu Panda series came out in the summer, but Kung Fu Panda 3 is timed to Chinese New Year, which lands next week. This latest chapter does look considerably better next to the typical January dregs that the studios have given us this month, but it’s also a worthier sequel than the slapdash Kung Fu Panda 2.
The story begins with Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) retiring and leaving the training of the Furious Five to Po (voiced by Jack Black). Our roly-poly kung fu master is ill-suited to teaching, and his initial failure is predictable even to Master Shifu himself. Soon, though, he has other things on his mind. First, Po’s biological father Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston) turns up in the Valley of Peace and alerts him to a secret mountain village where the other pandas have managed to survive. While that’s going on, a vanquished bad guy named Kai (voiced by J.K. Simmons) has spent the afterlife defeating other deceased kung fu masters and absorbing their qi force, and now he has enough power to return from the dead. With Kai threatening both the Valley and the village, our panda has to rally everyone he has.
The best stuff here is in Po returning to his roots, and there’s a great sight gag catching the disbelief of the Valley’s citizens when Po and Li first meet and initially fail to recognize each other, even though they’re the only giant pandas around. Finding himself among his kind for the first time, Po’s first reaction is untrammeled joy as he goes around to the villagers saying, “You look like me, but you’re a baby! You look like me, but you’re old! You look like me, but you’re fatter!” However, subsequent revelations show Po that all isn’t as it appears, and he must figure out where he fits in relation to his biological dad and his adoptive dad (voiced by James Hong). This stuff is handled deftly and with a gratifying lack of syrup.
All this comes rather at the expense of the kung fu action, I’m afraid. The fight sequences were a main drawing card for the previous installments, especially the first film, as the animators whipped up sequences that couldn’t have been performed by humans even on wires. Here the actual fights aren’t nearly as distinguished. The big showdown with Kai (a boring villain, despite Simmons’ presence) takes place in the spirit realm, and the choreography is overshadowed by the CGI.
Still, there’s some funny business as Po trains his uncoordinated fellow pandas to defend themselves — he turns out to be much better at teaching them, mostly because at this point he has learned to take his pupils for what they are and play to their strengths. Insights like that help expand the universe of this series and keep these characters from growing stale. As the year of the goat gives way to the year of the monkey, Kung Fu Panda 3 is a nice way to celebrate the calendar turning.