Caveat: I grew up outside of DC, so I’m programmed to swoon every time I see a panda. It’s a thing. With the internets, my thing is probably your thing too, even if you’re in Jakarta right now. (And if you are, could you send some sunshine? I’d even take rain after all this snow around here.)
So with the world’s panda obsession, it’s no wonder the Kung Fu Panda series has been so popular. Kids love it, critics love it, and everyone with a pulse enjoys when Jack Black (the voice of panda kung-fu prodigy Po) flexes his comedic chops. Even still, I was pleasantly surprised when Kung Fu Panda 3 hit all the right notes. That it’d be cute was a no-brainer; check out all the pandas in the poster, and peep the trailer for wide-eyed panda adorableness.
What I didn’t expect was that Dreamworks would still be all-in for this franchise. Yes, there’s talk of the Panda films being a six-story franchise. But instead of dashing off a story and simply sitting back letting the noodles roll in, screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger build from their earlier stories, taking Po’s Campbell-esque hero’s journey to a satisfying mid-point that works equally well as an end in itself, if needs be.
With Po now settling into his role as the Dragon Warrior, master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) gives him his toughest challenge yet; teaching. While Po struggles to take over teaching duties (causing no small pain to the “Furious Five”, Tigress, Viper, Monkey, Crane and Mantis), he also struggles to figure out what his life’s purpose is. Cue two newcomers to the Valley of Peace; Po’s long-lost, presumed dead, father Li (Bryan Cranston), and evil villain Kai (J.K. Simmons). While Po goes with Li to meet other pandas and get to know himself better, Kai — a former Master who was banished to the Spirit Realm — is looking for payback. But Po, Shifu, and the Furious Five may have met their match. But hey, lookit all those pandas!
Directors Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carloni are able to balance the two stories well, keeping an even keel from the slow-go pandas to the hyper-intense Kai. And while I would have liked to have had more banter from the Furious Five (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Lucy Lieu, Jackie Chan, David Cross, and Seth Rogen respectively) I understand that this particular part of Po’s story focuses not only on Po finding himself as a panda, but on how Po has to finally learn how to stand up and be who he is (all apologies to Nietzsche.)
Still, KFP3 manages to slip in many sub-plots that keep everyone laughing while providing teachable moments. Newcomer Mei Mei is unapologetically fabulous, and even has four different “PanDiva” videos on the Dreamworks YouTube page. While most folks are saying Mei Mei will be Po’s girlfriend, I’m hoping she’ll do her own thing and become another cool girl, ala Tigress and Viper. That she has the body type of a regular, healthy panda yet is 110% Cool Girl instead of turning into the “plucky sidekick” or “sweet BFF” makes me happy, and it’s obvious that Kate Hudson had a blast voicing the character. In fact, every actor here sounds like they’re having fun, even Simmons, who’s able to balance menace and goofiness perfectly. (So don’t worry about Kai being too threatening, parents of wee ones.)
Another sub-plot deals with how Mr. Ping feels about Po’s biological father making the scene. As Po and Li become close, Mr. Ping becomes apprehensive, fearing that he’ll lose Po. This story plays out with a nice mix of sly humor and sweetness that not only gives the story weight, it gives Mr. Ping a chance to shine. And in today’s world of blended, extended, and chosen families, it’s a story that’s sure to strike a chord with audiences.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is arguably the best of the series so far. Supernatural beings! A hero’s journey! MOAR PANDAS! While I look forward to being able to stream Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness for my Furious Five fix, Po’s personal story has taken such an interesting turn that I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.