‘Panda’ sequel tries to clone Black magic
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It's tough to recall a better match of kooky celebrity and cartoon persona than Jack Black in "Kung Fu Panda." We'd call the fit immaculately tailored if that didn't seem so counter to the spirit of Po, Black's rotund, kinda sloppy, nevertheless awesome martial arts savant.
It's confusing, then, to see "Kung Fu Panda 3" treat the franchise's singular character as one whose appeal can be duplicated — many times over, at that. A story that builds toward Po training an army of his panda brethren fails to deliver exponentially greater fun. The whole fightin'-bear jamboree is agreeable enough, but it takes some of the spotlight away from Black being Black, and doesn't jibe with messages about having a sense of self, of what makes you you.
There's some intriguing unfinished business to address at the start, as the second installment ended with a cliffhanger revelation: Po's long-lost birth father, Li, was still alive. It was a crazy coda to a solid story, on one hand half-negating sentimental themes about Po's bond with adoptive goose dad Mr. Ping (James Hong), but on the other, leaving us curious about where the filmmakers would go with it. Nowhere bold, ultimately. After a good scene with Po and Li (Bryan Cranston) proving to be comically slow on the uptake that they're family, the whole development is tidily handled. Po and Li pal around, Ping gets peeved, Po makes room for both of them.
The story's various other conflicts and dilemmas feel similarly flat. Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells Po it's time to morph from disciple to teacher, leading to a training debacle with the Furious Five (cast returnees Angelina Jolie et al.). Doubt-plagued Po then heads off with Li on a retreat to the pandas' mountain village. But Po's time away is costly, leaving the home front vulnerable to a literal raging bull, chi-stealing baddie Kai (J.K. Simmons, not quite getting "Whiplash"-nasty material this time).
The movie does rally with an aesthetically spectacular finale pitting Po against Kai in the spirit world, the villain's surreal, quasi-stellar domain. The animators had already grabbed our attention with the mystical jade energy Kai commands, and those visuals really explode here, riotously swirled with the sunset-colored glow marking Po's ascent to next-level bodaciousness. Not that he gets much help from his roly-poly troops. But wait, isn't that another plot inconsistency? Not for you to question, Grasshopper — um, Panda Cub.
Kung Fu Panda 3
Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni. Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. Starring Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, J.K. Simmons, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 95 minutes. PG (martial arts action, some mild rude humor).