February 9, 2016 -- The third installment in this animated series looks to be just as good as the first two. This is unusual. Most sequels are inferior to the original film, but for some reason, this series has been able to retain consistent quality throughout.
This series is about Po the panda's (voiced by Jack Black again) quest for spiritual enlightenment. Of course, in kung fu movies enlightment is accompanied by lots of martial arts violence, and that was certainly true of the first two films. This film takes this quest to a whole new plane, the spiritual realm beyond life and death. Here dwells creatures of legend, the departed Grand Master Oogway (whose exit from the first film was the most beautiful death scene ever) and his enemy, Kai, a kung-fu Ox.
Kai defeats Oogway in the spirit realm and thereby acquires enough ch'i (or qi or life force) from Oogway to re-materialize on earth in the mortal world. Kai intends to wipe out all memory of Oogway on earth and take the ch'i of all of his followers. Each time he defeats one of Oogway's followers, he takes his ch'i and turns him into a jade sculpture that he wears like a trophy. With each victory, he becomes stronger.
Po can only defeat the mighty Kai if he learns to channel his inner panda self. In order to do that, he treks with his biological father, Li Shan and his adoptive father, Mr. Ping, to a secret valley where a village of pandas will help him learn to be a true panda and master his ch'i. He also hopes the other pandas will help him defeat Kai. Po's panda training scenes are touching, but there is also some edge to this father-son reunion.
If this sounds like a lot of eastern philosophy and religion, it is, but it is also a good story, with strong characters. There is also some kung fu action, of course, but the main story is about the spiritual journey of Po. While the artwork is good in this film, it seems not quite as beautiful as the first two films, despite the advances in technology in the last eight years.
The main characters this time, Po, Li Shan and Mr. Ping are all compelling, with lots of father and son issues. Kai is a villain with some depth, because he used to be the best friend of Oogway, but he became poisoned by envy of Oogway's fame and success. This series has always leaned heavily on characters, and character development, and this film is no exception. This film rates a B.
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