Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Brief Thoughts on Kung Fu Panda 3.

A good movie opened in January? Is the fabric of the space-time continuum being shattered?

Actually, no. Despite January often being seen as a dumping ground acting as whiplash to the Oscar contenders that finally make their way stateside around that time, Kung Fu Panda 3 is most certainly not one of those awful slot fillers that so many movies making their official wide releases are. Much like it's rock solid 2008 first installment and its 2011 predecessor (which is greater than you remember it being), Kung Fu Panda 3 is equally thrilling, touching, and hilarious, even if it falls back on familiar cliches.

Having played the role three times now, I can see no one else doing as much justice to main character Po as Jack Black does, gaining more experience right alongside his animated counterpart, while still retaining the lovable geekiness and hyperactivity we've come to expect from him. While it essentially falls into another "Po needs to learn a lesson, fight a villain, discovers secrets and talents about himself that he never knew he had" structure, it's to the credit of Dreamworks and writers Johnathan Aibel and Grenn Berger that it still retains its freshness and energy even now, never dragging on or becoming overly dull, and maturing the characters as gracefully as before.

This time around, Po also gets a fantastic double act out of Bryan Cranston as his biological father, whose own high energy, comicality and emotional heft is a perfect match for Black's. It's irresistible any time these two share the screen together, but for as much laughs as it gives us, it still never forgets to get to the root of the bonds between the characters. The newly developed bond between the two brings out much jealousy and concern in Po's adopted father Mr. Ping (series MVP James Hong), and as these three central figures get to know each other better, not only does the film get many of it's most enriching and heartwarming moments, but also brings out a surprisingly meaningful outlook on families of different backgrounds coming together, and embracing them both as part of who you are.

If there's anything I didn't find as strong, it would perhaps be the villain of the film Kai, voiced by JK Simmons. The character is a fine menace and does get some good laughs, and is a stronger character than Tai Lung, but still isn't as engrossing as Shen from the previous film. Despite an interesting backstory behind him and Simmons' obvious enthusiasm for the performance, his entire motivation feels overly simplistic, and tends to reek of a "been-there, done-that" rehash. On top of that, the Furious Five don't have much to do in these movies anymore, and with them having such minor roles this time around (aside from Angelina Jolie's Tigress), it really feels like a waste of their all star talent. Speaking of which, that's exactly what Kate Hudson's superfluous, glorified background character is. This is clearly for name recognition on the poster, and there's no reason this couldn't have been given to a professional voice actor.

That said, when the film is good, it's very good, The animation continues to impress with its sleek choreography and lush environmental design, Hans Zimmer's music features some rock solid continuations to the old themes (despite jarring usage of Imagine Dragons' "I'm So Sorry" for Kai), and the action is thrilling as ever, featuring clever new tweaks like fights with extended takes, and carries the gleeful influence of executive producer Guillermo del Toro from head to toe. It's certainly far from the being an Inside Out or a How to Train Your Dragon 2, but what the film does right, it really does right.

***1/2 / *****

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