The best cinematic franchises, animated or not, are franchises that so completely immerse you in their universes that you stop counting if it's film three or film six or film eight or whatever. They are franchises that make you feel like you're somehow part of their worlds, whether it's the force awakening inside yourself or your heart and mind racing fast and furious or you simply find yourself transformed in ways big and small by each visit into the universe.
In three films, Kung Fu Panda has become such a franchise. With Kung Fu Panda 3, Dreamworks Animation has crafted the Kung Fu Panda franchise into an immersive experience for children and adults alike that begins to feel like we've become one of this very special and very entertaining family.
The transformation in Kung Fu Panda 3 feels natural and well earned. Po (Jack Black), the well loved yet occasionally hapless dragon warrior, has been called into leadership of the Valley of Peace by Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a callling that proves a tad misguided as he struggles to train Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen) and Crane (David Cross).
It is at Po's greatest moment of frustration that, seemingly out of nowhere, his biological father, Li (Bryan Cranston), enters the picture and for the first time we are introduced into Po's family, not of choice, but of blood. While one might lament, perhaps, that this momentarily sets aside Mr. Ping (James Hong), Po's adoptive father and longtime guide, rest assured that returning writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger handle the scenario in a way that feels rich with love and compassion and humor for all involved.
There's always been a strong thread of encouraging self-acceptance in the Kung Fu Panda films and that simple yet vital message is even stronger in Kung Fu Panda 3. Kung Fu Panda 2 director Jennifer Yuh returns to co-direct alongside Alessandro Carloni and the two collaborate to create a lush and beautifully constructed Panda Village along with a Spirit Realm that feels magical and mystical and otherworldly. The film's more emotional scenes, at times maybe a touch too somber, give the film an emotional gravitas one has seldom expected from a Dreamworks Animation film while the film's action sequences, especially the final confrontation between Po and Kai (J.K. Simmons), a spirit warrior locked in battle with Po's mentor, Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) that threatens to have life-changing consequences for Po, Panda Village and everyone involved.
Of course, I think we already secretly know how everything will turn out but it's a warm, winning and beautiful journey to get there. Po will even experience flirtation for the first time in the form of Mei Mei (Kate Hudson), a beautiful ribbon-dancer.
Jack Black is once again wild and woolly and wonderful and warm as Po, a character he's voiced in all three films and a character you might very well say he owns. The rest of the regulars return and Yuh and Carloni add some familiar but new voices to the mix with tremendous results.
At a mere 95 minutes in running time, Kung Fu Panda 3 is only occasionally and briefly self-indulgent with its story as we occasionally endure cloyingly sentimental scenes playing out just a hair too long. I didn't really mind. My guess is neither will you or your child.
If we're being honest, the first time we heard about Kung Fu Panda 3 we scoffed at the idea. "It'll never work," we thought to ourselves.
Yet, it did. It does. With Kung Fu Panda 3, we've become part of the Valley of Peace and the world of Po and his friends and mentors. It's a tremendousu place to be and Yuh and Carloni have immersed us in it as if we're an extra character frolicking and learning and mastering our own journeys toward being ourselves.
Welcome back, Po. We missed you.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic