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Kicking it with Kung Fu Panda 3'

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Animated sequel familiar, but still plenty of fun

As much as we might bemoan the lack of originality in Hollywood, there's no denying the reality that there's a lot of money to be made by giving people what they've already shown that they like.

Animated movies are among the guiltiest of offenders. Any animated film that achieves even a modicum of success swiftly becomes a franchise, a family-friendly cash cow that can be counted on to generate serious box office and merchandising revenue over and over and over again. Granted, all of these animated franchises fall prey to the inevitability of diminishing returns, but some manage their drop-offs better than others.

'Kung Fu Panda 3' is a good example of that sort of quality management. The folks at DreamWorks have never been shy about hitting the same notes repeatedly ('Shrek,' 'How to Train Your Dragon' and most egregiously 'Madagascar'), but they've handled this particular series with a lighter touch. The end result is a film that, while undeniably familiar, still manages to retain a bit of freshness.

Jack Black ('Goosebumps') is back as Po, the titular panda. He is still living the life of the Dragon Warrior, learning at the feet of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, 'The Program') and protecting his home valley alongside the Five Tigress (Angelina Jolie, 'By the Sea'), Monkey (Jackie Chan, 'Dragon Blade'), Mantis (Seth Rogen, 'The Night Before'), Crane (David Cross, TV's 'W/Bob & David') and Viper (Lucy Liu, TV's 'Elementary').

But two nigh-simultaneous events shake the very foundation of Po's world. An evil bull warrior named Kai (J.K. Simmons, 'Terminator Genisys') returns from the spirit realm after 500 years to steal the chi of all the world's remaining Kung Fu masters. And Po's long-lost father Li (Bryan Cranston, 'Trumbo') reappears in his life and offers to take him back to his village to learn the secrets of chi much to the chagrin of Po's adoptive father Mr. Ping (James Hong, 'Beast Mode').

While Po is building a relationship with the father he never knew and discovering the truth about what it means to be a panda (hint: a lot of sleeping and a LOT of eating), he also must find a way to harness the power of his chi. That power is truly the world's only hope against the relentless and ruthless evil of Kai.

Did you see the first two movies? If so, then you probably already have a good idea of how this is all going to play out.

One has to imagine that this is the last time DreamWorks can go to the 'Po discovers new and important power deep within himself' well, if only because, well after three movies, how much undiscovered business can possibly still be in there?

Familiarity aside, however, there's still plenty to like here. These movies are far and away the most visually creative in the DreamWorks catalog; this third installment might be the most interesting of the bunch. Occasional switches from computer to traditional animation, clear influences from the realm of kung fu cinema, a vibrant and meaningful use of color co-directors Jennifer Yuh and Allesandro Cardoni breathe a stunning amount of life into the script from franchise veterans Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger.

And of course, there's the cast. This role brings together the manic yin and sweet yang of Jack Black in a wonderful way; one gets the impression that he's positively in love with Po and this world he inhabits. It's undeniably joyful. Cranston is excellent as always; he might have the widest range of any actor in Hollywood. And then there's J.K. Simmons, who's also clearly having a ball he definitely gives good villain. The returning players are all clearly glad to be there, though their respective amounts of involvement are varied Hong, Hoffman and Jolie get the most time; Chan, Cross and Rogen get less, while Liu is barely in it at all. Still, they're all pretty clearly enjoying themselves.

'Kung Fu Panda 3' is a pretty decent time at the movies. It doesn't have the weight of, say, a Pixar offering, but that's perfectly fine. It's still a lot of fun and a heck of a lot better than an animated movie with a '3' in the title has any right to be. Sure, it's more or less the same story, but hey if you can't find joy in watching animals do kung fu, maybe you're the problem.

[4 out of 5]

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