Kung Fu Panda 3 needs a story as meaty as Po

Panda Po is still funny, but the story in the third movie feels thin and not weighty enough for the big-screen treatment

Kung Fu Panda 3's Master Shifu (left, voiced by Dustin Hoffman) and Po (Jack Black, right).
Kung Fu Panda 3's Master Shifu (left, voiced by Dustin Hoffman) and Po (Jack Black, right).PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

REVIEW / Animation


95 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***

The story: Supernatural villain Kai (J.K. Simmons) finds his way into the mortal world and sets out to kill every gongfu master there is in order to claim the title of the ultimate master. Po (Jack Black) and his own team of gongfu experts try to stop him, but first, he must deal with the sudden return of his long-lost biological father (Bryan Cranston).

Three movies and 80 television episodes in, the Kung Fu Panda franchise is beginning to show signs of inevitable creative fatigue.

The story here, while quick- paced and entertaining, does not feel weighty enough to receive the big-screen treatment.

It would have functioned just as well if it had been worked into an episode of the films' TV series spin- off, Legends Of Awesomeness.

Unlike the previous, and much stronger, Kung Fu Panda movies, the third outing lacks emotional punch and also recycles too many obvious elements from its predecessors.

Po's emotional and physical journey in training to become the world's saviour retreads familiar ground from the first film, while the new villain here - although voiced with much enthusiasm by Oscar winner J.K. Simmons (Whiplash, 2014) - feels like a cheap reincarnation of the evil snow leopard from the first movie.

Still, this film has done very well at the box office in the United States and China, where it opened in late January.

In China, in fact, it topped the charts to become the highest- grossing animated film ever - the obvious pandering to the lucrative Chinese market (the classic song Kung Fu Fighting is performed in Mandarin) clearly paid off.

Despite a thin story, the franchise continues to sell globally most likely because of Po's easy likeability.

Funny, well-meaning and extremely huggable, he is as much a sweet Everyman as the powerful Dragon Warrior.

Audiences will certainly lap up the scene where he encounters the hundreds of adorable baby pandas hilariously tumbling down the hills all at once in his hometown.

Making up for the lack of narrative depth, the new film delivers on some truly inventive visuals.

From the colourful, psychedelic realm of the spirits to the playground-like panda kingdom, the art here is stylish and arresting.

The use of 3D effects is also thoughtfully done - a rare highlight these days when many animation studios tend to slap on 3D as a gimmicky afterthought so that they can charge more for movie tickets.

Reportedly, DreamWorks Studio is producing three more movies after this one, making the film franchise a lengthy six-parter. Hopefully, the writers will come up with stories that are as meaty as Po.

• Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2016, with the headline 'Fewer kicks from new film'. Print Edition | Subscribe