Third time a charmer for the animated 'Kung Fu' fantasies

  • Po (Jack Black), left, finally meets his long-lost panda father Li (Bryan Cranston) In "Kung Fu Panda 3."

    Po (Jack Black), left, finally meets his long-lost panda father Li (Bryan Cranston) In "Kung Fu Panda 3."

 
 
Updated 1/28/2016 6:23 AM

The last two animated comedies I've seen -- "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip" and "Norm of the North" -- served up such willful awfulness that I fear they might have short-circuited my delicate Critic-O-Meter.

Why? Because I really liked "Kung Fu Panda 3."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Could it be possible that a second sequel can be as good or better than its slightly above-average original?

"Kung Fu Panda 3" says yes! It's the "Return of the King" of the trilogy.

If anything, co-directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson (she directed "Kung Fu Panda 2") and Alessandro Carloni point the fledgling series into something closer to a classic Walt Disney animated feature.

Like "Panda 2," this "Fu" ventures into slightly darker turf, especially when it pays a climactic, confrontational visit to the Spirit Realm, a dandy destination teeming with surrealistic dangers and twisted realities similar to Disney dream sequences, such as the Pink Elephants segment from "Dumbo."

Plus, "Panda 3" answers Disney's fascination with the "absent parent" by staging a welcome reunion between Po (Jack Black) and his long-lost panda dad Li (Bryan Cranston).

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It's not so welcome for Mr. Ping (James Hong), the noodle-pushing goose who has served as Po's foster father since the beginning of the panda's quest for kung fu-dom.

"Panda 3" begins with an attack and kidnapping.

Po's wise tortoise mentor, Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim). has his centuries of anticipated retirement interrupted by his twin-blade wielding ancient rival Kai (Oscar-winning J.K. Simmons, aka the Farmers Insurance pitchman).

Kai has been racking up the collective chi of a kazillion kung fu masters during the past millennium or so. By defeating Oogway, Kai gains enough power to enter the mortal world.

He immediately sets out to vanquish the one panda who can stop him from raising an army of supernatural warriors: Po, the Dragon Warrior.

Kai seems unstoppable, especially after he easily defeats Po's close friends and allies, aka the woefully underused "Furious Five" -- Mantis (Seth Rogen), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan) and Crane (David Cross) -- and even Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Kai collects their chi inside a magical amulet.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Now officially a chi-wiz, Kai sets his sights on the lovable Po, torn between two dads, plus the attentions of a ribbon-dancing panda cutie named Mei Mei (Kate Hudson).

"Panda 3" plugs in the sort of chases, fights and action sequences reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon, but it maintains a theatrical flourish in its rich, lush animation and Po's core conflict about who he is.

Normally, animated fantasies preaching the value of "being yourself" (as in Disney's "Aladdin") strike me as disingenuous, because young people still are working on discovering their identities, and asking them to be themselves is a little like telling a boring artist to be interesting. How exactly do you do it?

"Kung Fu Panda 3" poses an answer, that we are defined by our friends and family, by our hearts and our hopes, and all of them collectively grant us the power to win the day.

No fu-ing.

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