By the time a cartoon movie franchise gets to its third installment it has generally run out of gas and creativity.
The “Shrek” series comes to mind. By “Shrek the Third,” freshness had flown. And then — groan — came the wholly unnecessary “Shrek Forever After.”
A welcome exception to that rule is the “Kung Fu Panda” series. “Kung Fu Panda 2” suffers from a mild case of sequelitis — overloud and overdone — but “3” is a total delight. It’s gloriously colorful, very funny and, better yet, unexpectedly substantive and genuinely moving.
This time out, tubby protagonist Po (again voiced by Jack Black, in fine ebullient form) finally meets his long-absent birth dad (Bryan Cranston). This development triggers a bout of worried peevishness in his adoptive pop, the goose Mr. Ping (James Hong). He didn’t raise that boy — er, cub — for 20 years to then stand quietly by while Po’s affections are hijacked by a late-arriving interloper.
With his birth daddy on the scene, Po is introduced to the joyful realities of what it means to be a panda. Always an outsider until now, he is taken in hand by his dad and brought to a secret panda village high in mist-covered mountains of a mythical long-ago China.
There, he learns that his gluttonous love of dumplings and his bone-deep aversion to stairs (it’s tough hoisting all that poundage up them) are all part of the panda culture. Pandas are a roly-poly lot whose preferred mode of locomotion is rolling from place to place.
The tug-of-war between the two father figures fits hand-in-glove with a larger theme having to do with Po’s search for identity. Being raised by a goose has been confusing enough. But then there’s the added element of how this cheery clownish fellow came to be chosen as the legendary Dragon Warrior, master of kung fu and protector of the Valley of Peace in which he lives. His selection by the ancient oracular tortoise Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) in the original “Kung Fu Panda” always mystified his diminutive kung fu guru, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), and Shifu’s disciples, the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie Pitt), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) and Mantis (Seth Rogan).
Through two movies, the question that’s baffled them has been: Why him? The question is finally answered in “3.”
Reviving Oogway, deceased at the end of the original, ties this movie tightly back to the first and has the effect of turning the “Pandas” into a coherent and cohesive whole, a single solid story told in three parts. Credit for that must go to screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who wrote all three movies, and to filmmaker Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who directed “2” and co-directed “3.”
Martial arts action, excitingly mounted, is part of the package as Po battles a glowering green-eyed bull (J.K. Simmons) and tries to whip peaceable pandakind into a fighting force to defeat the villain. One-liners fly as fast as kung fu fisticuffs in this sweet and satisfying picture.
Kung Fu Panda 3
☆☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Featuring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie Pitt, James Hong, Bryan Cranston and J.K. Simmons.
Directors: Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni.
Running time: 1:35.
Rated: PG, for martial arts action and some mild rude humor.