Po, the most awesome of kung fu proficient pandas returns for a third time – prepare for totally rad martial arts and heartfelt capers! Jack Black’s performance as Po continues to be the centrepiece of the franchise, injecting the character with energy, humour and believability. Not bad for a talking, ass kicking panda. He’s perfect for the role and the role is perfect for him.
This time around Black’s Dragon Warrior Po is joined by newcomers to the series, Bryan Cranston (Trumbo), who takes on the role of Po’s long-lost father Li Shan, and J. K. Simmons (Whiplash) as the big nasty Kai, a yak with a bad attitude, bent on taking down all other kung fu masters. Both lend gravitas to their roles, and both are a great deal of fun. Po’s buddies, the Furious Five, also make their returns, though their appearances are little more than cursory. Po rules the roost (whether he likes it or not) as we explore his step up to leadership, and his relationship with his father.
The sandbox the characters have to play in is quite something. Kung Fu Panda 3’s version of China is absolutely gorgeous. As in, “my god I can’t believe this is a Kung Fu Panda film!” gorgeous. The first two films looked pretty great, but this really ups the ante on the visuals significantly, rich in painterly colours and depth, the series looks far, far better than ever before. Just take a look at the concept art Entertainment Weekly got their hands on before the film’s release:
And this one…
Or how about this one?
The most impressive part is that the concept art has genuinely translated to the final film. It’s a treat to look at. Elsewhere though the film is less ambitious.
Short, sweet, but overly simplistic, there are no road blocks for the characters and hence little dramatic tension. It’s very much like a Kung Fu Panda greatest hits. But it just so happens that heart and humour are two of the franchise’s biggest strengths, and they’re in full force here as part of that hits package.
There’s certainly a place in the world for the Kung Fu Panda series. It’s definitely more worthy of an extended run of films than, say, the Ice Age or Cars franchises. But up against animation heavyweights such as Inside Out, or Toy Story – which hit its peak by the time of its third entry – it doesn’t feel quite as essential. I’ve got a whole lot of love for Po. He’s a character I want to see more of. There’s a lot of doom and gloom in the world, and he’s an unrelenting force of pure joy. It begs the question, does the character deserve more than a simple, brief (albeit entertaining) romp? Should the Kung Fu Panda films be pushing towards the upper echelons of family fare?
I’m reluctant to say that Po is being under-serviced, as I’d hope that it comes across that I enjoyed the film. But I do get the impression that the franchise holds a greater potential than it’s meeting currently. Po needed a bit of cajoling to fulfil his destiny. Perhaps with a fourth film under its belt the Kung Fu Panda series will reach the greatness it’s so close to as well.
Rating (out of 5):