Friday, January 29, 2016

Kung Fu Panda 3: Still kicking up lots of fun

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang

For a franchise that began with a one-joke premise — a roly-poly panda, as a kung fu master? — this series has shown remarkable resilience.

Once Po, left, meets his equally mischievous biological father, the two pandas embark on
a spirited "play date" that almost destroys the venerable jade palace.
Considerable credit obviously goes to scripters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who’ve been on board since 2008’s first film. They’ve nailed just the right blend of goofy physical comedy and witty dialog (gotta keep the adults entertained!) while including a virtuous moral or two.

The voice talent also is first-rate, starting with the always amusing Jack Black, as the frequently flustered title character; ample assistance comes from supporting players performed by Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen and particularly James Hong. They and others have remained involved from the beginning, and such continuity definitely helps the franchise.

Mostly, though, these films are fun, in the silly, good-natured manner that also has kept the Ice Age series running strong for so long.

As Kung Fu Panda 3 opens, our hero Po’s beloved teacher, Shifu (Hoffman), decides to step down as the local kung fu master. On his way out, Shifu assigns Po the next challenge in his evolution as the local Dragon Warrior: to become the instructor of his warrior colleagues, the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Chan), Mantis (Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross).

The first training session ... leaves much to be desired.

Recriminations and self-doubt are cut short, however, by the arrival of an unexpected visitor: another dumpling-devouring panda, named Li (Bryan Cranston), who bears a striking resemblance to Po ... and claims to be our hero’s actual father. This doesn’t sit well with Mr. Ping (Hong), the goose who runs the village noodle shop and has been Po’s adoptive father, lo these many years.

Elsewhere, in the spirit realm, the elderly tortoise Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) — former senior master of the Valley of Peace's venerable Jade Palace — has spent 500 years deflecting challenges by former brother-in-arms Kai (J.K. Simmons), who has succumbed to the “dark side” after being seduced by the power of chi.

This time, alas, Kai’s accumulated chi allows him to overcome Oogway and break free of the spirit realm. Now marching through China, Kai defeats and steals additional chi from thousands of kung fu masters, turning them into jade amulets on his belt. Worse yet, he can “activate” these amulets to create evil jade zombies.

And it’s only a matter of time before Kai reaches the Valley of Peace, where he intends to do the same with Shifu, the Furious Five, and — most particularly — Po.

As it happens, our corpulent Dragon Master is AWOL, having followed Li to the lush, mythical and idyllic Panda Village, where Po is astonished — nay, overwhelmed — to embrace his origins and find his “true home.” (Or so he initially believes.)

At which point, Aibel and Berger’s script focuses on its sweetest message: the true nature of home, and of family. Po has a lot to work out, as he balances the inviting allure of Panda Village against his responsibilities back in the Valley of Peace ... along with all the residents who not only have come to depend on him, but regard him as part of their extended family.

The secondary moral, which derives from Po’s desire to be a great kung fu teacher “just like Shifu,” is equally important: to thine own self be true. We don’t excel while trying to imitate others; the goal is to become the best possible you.

Granted, it’s fortune-cookie stuff, but Aibel, Berger and their cast deliver these homilies with tender sincerity. Directors Jennifer Yuh (who also helmed Kung Fu Panda 2) and Alessandro Carloni keep the pace swift and the tone light, even as Kai grows ever more powerful and ferocious.

Despite his thirst for vengeance, Kai has a humorous side, which Simmons conveys with perfect comic timing. The villain can’t understand why nobody remembers or recognizes him, and gets increasingly put out by everybody’s unwillingness to identify him by his lengthy string of boastful subtitles.

My one regret involves character balance: The tapestry has grown too large. With an entire village of pandas to introduce, the Furious Five get short shrift, and they’re missed. Jolie’s Tigress, so vibrant a presence in the two previous films, barely registers here. Even Shifu is shunted aside.

Not so Mr. Ping, and Hong makes the most of the goose’s snarky rivalry with Li.

And despite all the publicity that has accompanied Kate Hudson’s presence as the newly introduced Mei Mei, a seductive panda with her eye on Po, she’s all but ignored in a narrative that gets increasingly busy by the time she arrives.

Franchise fans probably won’t mind, and in fairness this doesn’t affect the film’s entertainment value. The jokes are just as funny, the action just as improbably amusing and cleverly staged. Hans Zimmer provides another lively orchestral score that further energizes the fight sequences, and he also lends poignance to the quieter, more reflective moments.

Given the degree to which the bursting-at-the-seams preview audience cheered this film a few weekends ago — and deservedly so — we probably haven’t seen the last of Po and his kung fu colleagues. And that’s just fine.

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