Absolutely the only thing wrong with Kung Fu Panda 3 is that it’s the third film in a series that is starting to show the inevitable signs of strain. As another entry, it’s perfectly fine. The additions of Bryan Cranston, giving voice to Po’s (Jack Black) real father, and the presence of a new villain in the form of a power-hungry water buffalo named Kai (J.K. Simmons) are good. Plus, the subplot involving Po’s adoptive father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), feeling left out with the arrival of Po’s actual father works nicely to flesh out what is otherwise a fairly typical believe-in-yourself story. Whether that and the film’s undeniable visual panache are enough to put it over for you is a personal call. It may be enough for many viewers that they merely get to spend some time with characters they’ve grown to like over the previous movies. There are certainly worse things. (And some of them are playing at theaters near you.)
This time, the story hinges on the villainous Kai, a long-forgotten (the reason we’ve never heard of him) former good guy turned bad. Kai manages to make his way out of the spirit world and back to the real world, where he intends to become all-powerful by capturing the “chi” (life force) from all kung fu masters. It is never entirely clear just what he plans on doing once he becomes all-powerful. But, considering we’ve already been told that he will be defeated (no prizes for guessing by whom), I don’t guess it matters much. There’s almost a kind of genius to this plot, since it allows Kai to quickly sideline Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross), clearing the stage to concentrate on Po, his two fathers, Tigress (Angelina Jolie) and a few (mostly minor) new characters. This streamlines the crowded cast without just forgetting about them. (They have become green zombified minions of Kai.)
While the plot comes under the heading of serviceable — admittedly boosted by the screenplay’s often witty dialogue and the undeniable solid emotional components — this latest entry really scores with its visuals. The series has always been very much on the high end when it comes to the quality and just plain beauty of the animation, but Kung Fu Panda 3 really pushes the boundaries. It bombards the viewer with ever-more striking, ever-more colorful images (often via split-screen) that are amazing to see. Calling the film a visual feast would not be going too far. The problem is that it eventually verges on overkill and is apt to leave some viewers more exhausted than exhilarated. On the plus side, it’s unlikely to bore anyone.
The biggest problem with the film comes down to the simple-series tendency to repeat that which has worked in the past. That means that the big ending — no matter how big — has the inescapable feeling of “been there, done that.” It doesn’t help that the film has established the basics of what will happen from the very onset. (OK, so there’s never much doubt about the basic trajectory with this sort of movie.) It’s big. It’s flashy. It’s momentarily impressive and reasonably satisfying. The fact remains that it ought to be more than just reasonably satisfying. You’re not let down, but neither are you transported by it. That’s going to be a much bigger problem if DreamWorks — now in cahoots with China Film Co. on this — is going to continue the series, which seems likely with the success of this entry. Rated PG for martial arts action and some mild rude humor.