We re-join China’s premier fighting panda for the third film of the Kung Fu Panda series, now eight years old and a billion dollar franchise covering multiple media platforms (not too shabby by any Panda’s standards). Po (Jack Black) is reunited with his real father (Bryan Cranston) however his joy is short lived as Kai (J.K Simmons) a supernatural kung fu warrior has escaped from the spirit realm by stealing the Chi of deceased warriors, including Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) our favourite, possibly stoned, turtle, outside of Finding Nemo. To defeat this new opponent Po must master his own chi with the help of his father, his adoptive father, Master Shifu, the furious five, a village full of various pandas, and a large selection of various anthropomorphic kung fu masters, including my favourite, Master Chicken (whose wisdom I bow to).
With a lot of plot going on, and a running time of only 95 minutes the film moves along at a brisk pace, keeping the narrative and conflict simple as to maintain cohesion within the story. Jack Black’s high energy performance style has always been perfectly suited to the martial arts loving panda, and even as he continues to learn, and discover new abilities and skills, at his core he is a fan, and his enormous enthusiasm for kung fu is highly infectious and difficult to dislike. With a large ensemble there is not much breathing room for a lot of the characters to make an impact, the furious five, Tigress aside, do little more than cameo. Whilst Bryan Cranston is both heartfelt and amusing as Po’s long lost father. J.K Simmons brings as much to the part of Kai as he can, and is a powerful presence for Po to try and overcome. The surprise of the film was the amount of time given to Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping (James Hong), who I assumed would take a back seat in the narrative, but refuses to let the return of Po’s father get in way of their paternal bond. This leads to a few hit and miss gags between the rival fathers, but culminates in some worthwhile dramatic moments later in the film and James Hong’s vocal performance was a highlight of the feature.
The animation is delightfully colourful, with a rich texture to the backgrounds, the ‘Spirit World’ being a vibrantly designed arena full of splendorous colour. Hans Zimmer’s score complements the visuals with a heady mix of western and eastern influences, the fusion of strings and percussion in the action sequences is perfectly suited to the fast paced direction, and slick, amusing fight choreography. Zimmer co-scored the previous two Kung Fu Panda films with John Powell, but this time rides solo, and does a fabulous job of supplying the film with an excess of urgency and boisterous energy.
Po’s enthusiasm makes him an enjoyable screen presence and there are enough amusing jokes, pulsating action sequences, and highly talented animators working behind the scenes to make it an enjoyable time. Dreamworks CEO Jeff Katzenberg has hinted in the past that he envisions Kung Fu Panda as a minimum six film series so we may yet see more of Po & co. I only hope that if they do decide to continue the series that they can maintain the standard they have set with this enjoyable trilogy of pandamonium. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. I’ll just go sit in the corner.
*** out of *****
Review by Alexander Halsall