Some recommended reading that I was thinking of during the early going here: A recent "Kaiju Shakedown" column by Grady Hendrix, in which he uses the recent release of Ip Man 3 to discuss the see-saw history of kung fu and wuxia in Chinese entertainment. It's not quite the way is always thought of it - I'd always had the impression of wuxia as swordplay versus kung fu's fists and feet - but the way Hendrix divides it up is interesting and gives me a little hope that maybe the more realistic martial arts will ascend again, because it's cyclical.
It came to mind, obviously, because of the opening sequence which takes in the spirit realm which is a grander sort of fantasy than the film has traded in, which feels like graduation for the characters, although it makes Po and the other characters so powerful that it's hard to imagine what sort of foe they could fight next time. But, like I mention in the review, it seems like a good place to stop. Ironically, that's where Madagascar 3 ended up when they added Bryan Cranston to the cast - more obviously done, sure, but threatening to overflow anyway.
Not that the Kung Fu Panda series is likely to end here - it actually opened bigger in China than the U.S., and there's no way a studio is going to drop something with that sort of pan-Pacific appeal right now. Heck, DreamWorks even worked things so that they could get it considered a Chinese production - it is technically a co-production with "Oriental DreamWorks" which is technically a separate company - so it isn't considered part of the quota of 34 foreign films per year which can only play 30 days each. Po and company are probably the company's best beachhead into that territory, so I don't see them being retired.
Kung Fu Panda 3
* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 January 2016 in Regal Fenway #7 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)
Kung Fu Panda 2 ended with a tease of a hidden panda village, which makes it surprising to me that DreamWorks let four and a half years pass before following that up. Sure, that's partly just how it goes with animation - this stuff takes time - but it's a heck of a long gap considering that the kids who loved the first back in 2008 are teenagers by now, probably feeling like they've outgrown this sort of thing. And while these movies are still plenty of fun, they haven't exactly grown up with their audience.
Before reuniting title character Po (voice of Jack Black) with his long-lost biological father Li Shan (voice of Bryan Cranston), the film introduces its villain: Kai (voice of JK Simmons), a former friend of Master Oogway (voice of Randall Duk Kim) dispatched to the spirit realm 500 years ago when he tried to use the pandas' chi techniques to conquer the world and since forgotten. As Kai escapes to the mortal realm, Master Shifu (voice of Dustin Hoffman) announces his plans to retire and put Po in charge of training, although both Li's arrival and Kai's approach will have the adopted Po seeking to reconnect with his panda roots, especially if that's how he can learn how to harness chi and defeat Kai.
In the same way that the first Kung Fu Panda seemed like a stroke of obvious genius for making characters to match animal-inspired fighting styles, the opening scenes of this movie are a delight: It's every trippy "higher plane" scene from a fantasy wuxia film realized in a way that even the best wire-fu and digital backlot techniques can't quite manage, and that it involves an ox and a turtle doesn't really matter. Heck, that helps keep the audience from getting jolted out of the picture because the characters are doing things that they shouldn't be able to. As expected, this sort of scene demonstrates just how well DreamWorks animators use 3D, as in addition to how great their rendering engine is throughout. Aside from the tech, the filmmakers do a great job of filling the screen with good-looking stuff without it becoming too much for the adults in the audience, even during a big action scene where Po and half a dozen other kung fu matters have enough to keep them busy. They get a lot of good jokes out of their menagerie of characters as well.
Full review on EFC.