‘Kung Fu Panda 3’
Directors: Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Alessandro Carloni
Voices of: Jack Black, Bryan Cranston
3 (out of 5) Globes
The three “Kung Fu Panda” films are powerfully forgettable but they’re also handsomely made, extremely pretty, elegantly designed and funny exactly when they need to be. And they’re short: negligible stories that are distracting enough, like the movie series of the ’30s — your “Thin Man”s, your Andy Hardy movies — which rewarded devoted viewers by cranking out entries that were reliably similar but different. If they weren’t such a smooth balance of multiple elements, or if they took themselves at all seriously, there’d be reason to complain. But you won’t, in part because they’ll slip out of your mind the second they end.
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One can even forgive that they’re cookie-cutter. The filmmakers planned it as a six-film saga, but each one essentially finds slovenly porcine panda Po (voice of Jack Black) realizing — once again — that he’s actually an unstoppable martial arts god in a doughy body and with a knack for Jack Blackish giggling. The story advances a little bit: Here he meets his long-lost dad (Bryan Cranston), who in turn introduces him to a mystery society of pandas. In more routine terms, there’s another supervillain — an evil spirit voiced indiscriminately by J.K. Simmons — who has emerged from the “spirit realm” and is set on imprisoning all kung fu masters and absorbing their powers in yet another bid for world domination.
No matter. The colors are riots of neon green and hypnotic swirling clouds. The spirit realm is a fantastical place, free of earthly constraints, but even the “mortal world” is bright and retina-searing. The animators know how to craft exquisite action, but they also know how to pace a gag, how to design characters so that the often funny actors voicing them — David Cross, Seth Rogen, James Hong as Po’s adopted goose-father — seem like they’re embodying the onscreen bodies, not just rattling off ad-libs for an easy paycheck. Even the shift from deadpan comedy to beautiful action is smooth, and it’s easy to admire an American movie that doesn’t just appropriate another culture, but introduces young Western viewers to a different part of the world.
In short, the foundation is sound and the end result is engaging and often amusing even when the gags are dumb. (A smackdown makes room for Po to toss off a winningly groaning portmanteau about “jade zombies”: “jombies.”) It has homilies — ever-cryptic tiny panda Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells Pohe’s “trying to turn you into you” — but not so many that it weighs down the picture. It has a decent stretch where Po and dad act more like rascally siblings a la “Step Brothers,” plus a climax on loan from “The Magnificent Seven” (or at least “Three Amigos!”). There's a nifty sequence where a backstory is told in abstract animation — though this trick, seen in "Krampus," "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" and even back in the 1978 film of "Watership Down," is by now a bit of a cliche. It’s a fine, sturdy outing. Prepare to fire up the Wikipedia entry right before “Kung Fu Panda 4” to remind yourself you saw it at all.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge