Sequels have become inescapable in the cinematic realm. Any movie intended for mass audiences is now pitched based on its ability to bring people back to theaters for the next chapter, which seems more like a requisite event than a legitimate happening. There have in fact been so many different sequels and threequels that the origin story of popular characters has itself become a full-fledged trope. Rather than shaking up the whole model and framework, however, Kung Fu Panda 3 sends its portly panda hero, Po (voiced by Jack Black), on a present-day journey of self.
It's a wide-ranging trip, to be sure: Po is just learning to harness his powers as the prophesied "Dragon Warrior," but is struggling in his new role as instructor to his quirky, yet determined group of friends. His life becomes even more complicated after a cataclysmic, two-pronged turn of events. First, another ultra-affable panda with a big appetite turns up in the village: Li (Bryan Cranston), who is revealed to be Po's father. After learning of a possible attack on the village from the villainous and seemingly unstoppable Kai (a menacing turn from J.K. Simmons), Po is brought home to the secret panda village with his father, with the hope of harnessing the power of chi that his ancestors once used to nurse kung-fu master Oogway (a welcome role reprisal from the first installment courtesy of Randall Duk Kim) back to health. However, Po's pal Tigress (Angelina Jolie) eventually finds her way to the village with news that the showdown between good and evil may be coming sooner than Po was prepared for.
Parents needn't be worried -- this latest section of the Kung Fu Panda story is worthy of the series it belongs to, finding the goofy, charming and uplifting sweet spot that made the first two films hits. The voice ensemble as a whole brings a legitimate soul to each of their assigned characters, particularly David Cross as the cautious Crane, veteran James Hong as Po's concerned adoptive father, Mr. Ping, and new cast member Kate Hudson, who plays a brash and talented ribbon dancer. This third installment, like its predecessors, is visually striking, weaving its way between surreal, Asian-inspired splashes of color signifying inner peace and turmoil, and vibrant natural landscapes and creatures (seeing the panda village and its inhabitants for the first time is like sipping a hot cocoa drink at just the right temperature).
Experienced viewers in their teen years or beyond should not be expecting an all-around masterpiece. The humor is mainly based on physical comedy and subsequent reactions from other characters, with very few witticisms and a comedic sensibility that prefers to remain in its youth-oriented wheelhouse. Because of the attention spans of its desired younger viewers, children's movies must be efficient in terms of running time, but it's still worth noting that Kung Fu Panda 3 breezes past some interesting details, like Po learning how to become a teacher himself or the intricacies of both giving and receiving chi, a Chinese folk term for energy flow that plays a large part in the story. In addition, the groundwork for the next chapter (pupil becomes the master) is laid on a little too thick during this part's sprint towards the finish.
These qualms, however, will be of no concern to the children for whom this film is truly for. Just as importantly, the parents who will be brought along are given enough to be entertained, courtesy of some computer-generated eye candy and physical comedy given life by animators and thespian pros. Kung Fu Panda 3 is no instant classic, as its easy ending somehow comes across as both confusing and somewhat lazy. There's no denying, however, that this ride is enjoyable, eschewing a predictable real father vs. adoptive father tug-of-war and focusing on sincere, relatable issues such as identity, parenthood and severe growing pains. In doing so, the film creates a marriage of humor and heart that offers some genuine entertainment for children and parents alike.