It's a good time to be an animation fan. Television is filled with cutting-edge work, from Adventure Time to Adult Swim. In theaters, the reign of Pixar has produced a string of masterpieces, the latest of which was last year's Inside Out. Even though it's been overshadowed by Pixar, and still extruding corporate product like Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks Animation has stepped up its game after years of floundering in the Shrek doldrums, led by a panda who does kung fu.
Has there been a more obvious-only-in-hindsight film premise in recent memory than Kung Fu Panda? Once those three words were spoken in the DreamWorks executive suite sometime in the middle of the last decade, it was inevitable that they would be followed by "Get me Jack Black!" Po, the dumpling-obsessed, orphan panda turned dragon warrior, is the perfect conduit for Black's hyperkinetic charisma. It would be hard to imagine the franchise banking a billion and a half bucks without Black providing Po's animus.
But this installment of the panda's adventures in the stylized feudal Chinese setting of the Valley of Peace has more going for it than just Black. It seems to be one of those rare bits of corporate synergy where the right players were assembled, beginning with director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, a 43-year old Korean American whose work on Kung Fu Panda 2 made her the highest-grossing female director of all time. For this installment, Nelson shares the big chair with longtime DreamWorks animator Alessandro Carloni, and their direction keeps Kung Fu Panda 3 nimble and assured.
The film opens in the spirit realm, where Grand Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), having achieved ultimate enlightenment, is chilling on a Roger Dean-inspired floating rock, when he is attacked by his old enemy Kai (J.K. Simmons). The immortal bull-being wants to collect Oogway's qi, or spiritual energy, and use it not to conquer at Scrabble (where qi is valuable because it is a "q" word you can play without a "u" in your rack, and also because its alternate spellings "ki" and "chi" are legal words), but to bring the entire world under his hoof. Any movie that starts off with a bull and turtle battling through the astral plane with magical, zero-G kung fu has my attention.
Meanwhile, back in the land of the mortal anthropomorphic animals, Po's teacher Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) is retiring and appointing Po as his successor at the Jade Temple kung fu school, just in time for our hero to fight off an onslaught by Kai and his pop-up army of jade zombies. Po's worldview is further shattered by the arrival of his long-lost father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), who offers to take him home to the secret, Shangri-la-like village of pandas to perfect his knowledge of qi (which will get you 33 points on a Triple Word Score). Po's adopted father Mr. Ping (legendary character actor James Hong, who achieved immortality as Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China) is suspicious, and tags along for the journey, leaving Po's sidekicks the Furious Five to fight a rear-guard action against the rampaging Kai.
Flowing freely between styles inspired by anime, Pixar, and Asian woodcuts, Kung Fu Panda 3 is easily the most visually lush film DreamWorks has ever produced. The combination of the over-the-top aesthetic of Chinese wuxia films with the Western animated tradition, where animals like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny assume human traits, has produced a cool, original cross-cultural mashup. Like the work of Jackie Chan (whose Master Monkey is all but neglected in this film), the meticulously choreographed fight sequences are played for slapstick. The basic concepts and iconography, while they may sound confusing in a review, are easily grasped by kids raised on Dragon Ball Z. Po's journey of self-acceptance lacks the psychological insight of Inside Out, but what it lacks in sophistication it makes up for in good-spiritedness. Kung Fu Panda 3 may be empty calories, but it tastes pretty good going down.