A third installment in a franchise isn't always great. But sometimes, it can be a comforting guarantee of a good time at the movies, as is the case with "Kung Fu Panda 3." The first two installments have been met with rapturous reception and box office success, and this one will no doubt follow in their footsteps -- with good reason. The engaging and heartfelt story, coupled with eye-popping animation, makes "Kung Fu Panda 3" a total knockout.
In a prologue, we're introduced to this film's antagonist -- a bull by the name of Kai (voiced by J.K. Simmons). He's been banished to the spirit realm by tortoise kung fu master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), but he's on a mission to steal the chi energy of all the kung fu masters in China, thereby becoming the most powerful master. Simultaneously, roly poly goofy panda and Dragon Warrior, Po (Jack Black), is being promoted to kung fu teacher by his master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman).
While he struggles with his new role, putting his friends Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) through the paces, there are other changes afoot in Po's life. A mysterious panda, Li (Bryan Cranston), with strangely similar dumpling-eating abilities, appears in town. The two pandas discover that Po is Li's long lost son and they have a happy reunion.
The only one who can best Kai will have to be a master of chi, which happens to be a talent of the pandas. So Po and Li set off for the secret panda village for chi, and panda, lessons. The story is actually rather simple -- there's a bad guy they have to face; a panda learns about where he comes from and embraces who he really is. But, the story is sincere and heartfelt, rendered with sweet emotional moments, humor and epic, sweeping action scenes.
With a star-studded voice cast (Black in the lead, with Rogen and Cross on backup) there's no shortage of humor. But the animation is the real standout in the film. The action scenes really move across the screen with a sense of choreographed dynamism and grace. Slow-motion is used to great effect, and the 3-D only helps to enhance the experience. Gorgeous painterly treatments, referencing traditional Chinese painting and writing, are incorporated into the animation style.
In the panda village, Po discovers a whole new group of fellow pandas, and each stands out for unique traits and personalities. Turns out they're a cozy, playful bunch, who enjoy eating, hugging and rolling. Po embraces this lifestyle wholeheartedly, but realizes that it's the individual aspects of who he is that make him, him. That's the main lesson at the core of "Kung Fu Panda 3." Become what makes you you, and the rest is cake. Or dumplings, in this case.
MPAA rating: PG (for martial arts action and some mild rude humor).
Running time: 1:35