By T.T. Stern-Enzi

What’s an awesome kung fu warrior to do once he has fended off the greatest threats to his crown and kingdom? Settle in for a little rest and relaxation, right? Well, maybe not.


Especially if we’re talking about the adorable Po, voiced by Jack Black, who certainly packs all of the crazy energy you would expect from a character sporting Black’s now signature vocal hysterics. Po is a giant figure that, in theory, should be a wrecking ball of a monster (once you add in his martial arts abilities), but comes across more like a big old cuddly bear with the focus and attention of a 10-year-old, at best. He has the best of intentions and the desire to achieve greatness, although he obviously needs an ever-present challenge to hone in on.

Po’s teacher, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) realizes this dilemma and seeks to push Po to step up his game by putting him in charge of teaching and sharpening the skills of his motley crew of animal warriors—Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Lui) and Crane (David Cross). Everyone immediately faces the fact that Po is not a natural-born teacher. On top of that, he gets distracted by the appearance of an even bigger panda named Li (Academy Award Nominee Bryan Cranston) who, it turns out, happens to be his long-lost father, creating a rift of sorts in his relationship with his adopted dad Mr. Ping (James Hong).

When real trouble arrives in the form of spirit world escapee Kai (JK Simmons)—an ancient warrior with a chip on his broad shoulders, an axe to grind and the power to crush anyone in his way to dust—Po has no other choice but to figure out fast, quick and in a hurry what it takes to be a true master.

Over the past three to four years, I have developed an aversion of sorts to the questionable charms of the latest crop of animated features. They tend to feel artificial and full of empty calories, stuffed to the gills with broad hijinks and jokes aimed moreso at the adults sitting next to their kids. I find Hollywood animated stories quite embarrassing when you consider the quality output from Japanese storytellers (like the current Oscar nominated feature, “When Marnie Was There”) or the French (2012 Animated Feature nominee “A Cat in Paris”), who feel no need to talk down to their young audiences.

But I took a chance a few weeks ago, deigning to attend the weekend advance screening of “Kung Fu Panda 3,” from returning Director Jennifer Yuh (the second installment) and Alessandro Carloni (a story artist on both of the earlier movies as well as the head of story on the first two “How to Train Your Dragon” features) when I assumed I would rather watch a marathon of recent Adam Sandler home movies dubbed in Mandarin.

This third outing provides all of the raucous humor and outsized action audiences have come to appreciate from such vivid animated works, but Yuh and Carloni, along with screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, don’t sacrifice the narrative, and a truly adult rendering of the emotional content. Po bounces and bounds his way through life in a state of arrested development with a heaping helping of fantasy, because he’s a panda that was raised out of his element. He hasn’t seen anyone that looked like him his entire life, and suddenly he gets a father and a whole community of pandas to call his own. There is a rich life lesson here that has surprising real world implications for people munching popcorn in the not-so cheap seats.

So often, it is easy to dismiss Hollywood and the pursuit of box office returns. There always seems to be a premium on completing a trilogy or saga of some sort, that rarely feels like it is based on the actual narratives themselves, but “Kung Fu Panda 3” works organically because we have watched Po grow into a mature, yet still fun loving figure with mythic potential and epic relatability. Now that’s nothing short of pure awesomeness.