What the world wished someone would tell them has now been said. At being told he need not count his dumplings, Po chortles, his eyes a wondrous round, “I always knew I wasn’t eating up to my full potential!”
So now you know. The film series that has made such light work of weighty matters packs in yet more and lands neatly on its feet, both grown-up and child-like.
Master Shifu (Hoffman) is looking for some “alone time” for further spiritual development, and tells Po (Black) to take up his teaching duties. Nervous Po messes up the first teaching session with the Furious Five. However, before Po has the time to fret, a person who looks surprisingly like him, Li (Cranston) lands up in the Valley and beats his dumpling-eating record. It takes a few seconds and some incongruous words before Li and Po, apparently the only two pandas left in the world, realise they may be father and son. Ping (Hong), a goose who has raised Po as his own son, looks on in unconcealed but not ill-intentioned jealousy.
Meanwhile, an old enemy of Master Ooogway, Kai (Simmons), has come back from the spirit world to take over the Jade Palace. Kai has been capturing the ‘chi’ — the spiritual energy that exists in all living beings — of all the kung fu masters in China, and becoming more powerful. Pandas have the power to invoke chi too, and when Li offers to teach Po that in the secret village of the Pandas, Shifu urges him to accompany his father there.
In this secret village, Po learns to live the easy life, including the art of snoring, sighing, munching a twig while leaning on the balcony to look at a setting sun, and to just go rolling down a mountain instead of walking. And, of course, to relearn the joy of just eating, without watching.
When danger comes eventually, it is these tricks that come handy. One of the overriding themes of Kung Fu Panda 3 is the refrain, first by Shifu and then by Po — “I am not teaching you to be me; I am teaching you to be you.”
However, the DreamWorks animation says it more effortlessly in action, drawing out each of its village-ful of characters with warmth and detail. Even Mei Mei (Hudson), the coquettish ribbon dancer who renders jelly-like even her pendulous panda audience.
The 3D stands out, as the story travels from the Valley to the panda village up a snowy mountain, and then literally takes a dip into a golden, fluid spirit world.
While the film is a bit rushed in the beginning, particularly in its introduction of Kai and his intentions, Black hauls it back into place everytime he is on screen. And that is irrespective of whether he is the son out to impress his new-found father, the nervous student under the watch of a critical master, a reluctant leader called upon to play the hero, or even a vainglorious youth enjoying a victory.
A close second are the two dads of Po, played by Cranston and Hong to an almost perfect tango. When Ping tells Li, “I realised that sharing Po with you didn’t mean less for me but more for him”, that’s a movie line for eternity.
That brings us to the other heroes of this film, Kung Fu Panda’s dependable writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who once more make space for everybody, the big guys and the small beings, in a film that makes size so relevantly irrelevant.
After all, when again would you be called to eat up to your full potential?
Directed by Alessandro Carloni, Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Voices of Jack Black, James Hong, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, J K Simmons, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Kate Hudson