Now that we've hit film #3, and given that the worldwide box office take so far makes it seem somewhat unlikely that film #4 is in the offing, we are able to speak of the "Kung Fu Panda Trilogy". And as far as I'm concerned, we are able to speak of it in especially fond terms. Kung Fu Panda 3 is absurdly good for being two of the most dire things in modern cinema rolled into one: it is both an animated sequel and the third movie in a series. In fact, I would happily go on record calling KFP3 not merely "surprisingly good for a third film in an animated franchise", nor even "every bit the equal of 2008's lovely and fun Kung Fu Panda, and the first of its surprisingly excellent sequels, 2011's Kung Fu Panda 2"; I think it's fully the best film of the three, and it took me shockingly little time coming to that conclusion. But even if we can't go that far, it must at least be stated with absolute confidence that the Kung Fu Pandas have managed to stay at a remarkably consistent level across multiple entries, more so than virtually any other modern franchise. We're in fantastically rarefied territory; the Toy Story films live there, and though I think it's cheating (and also inaccurate), the The Lord of the Rings can be fitted there as well, and what else? It may be the last burning ember of creativity that the frequently craven DreamWorks Animation ever knows, but it's a triumphant death rattle.

In the broadest possible sense, the film re-covers ground from the first movie, something KFP2 was totally able to avoid: the villain is once again a figure from out of the murky past of China's great kung fu history. And once again, rotund panda warrior Po (Jack Black) is forced to be better and more capable than he thinks he can be in order to stop that threat. But that is the broadest possible sense, and in the particulars, KFP3 does a superb job of extending Po's arc in such a natural way that it retroactively seems like the first two films were always looking to lay the groundwork for this one (of course, in very real sense, KFP2 was doing just that). Among other things, this film introduces a completely new personal drama that is almost certainly meant to be more important than the greater physical danger: Po's long-lost father Li (Bryan Cranston) has finally tracked his son down, which causes no small end of joy to Po, who thinks that he can finally learn what it means to truly be a panda; but it also causes him misgivings that he can't still fit comfortably into the only life he's known. And it causes full-on ragegasms for Po's adoptive father, the goose Ping (James Hong), who furiously resists the interloper's attempt to insert himself as a full member of a relationship that he hasn't earned.

One would already have to give Kung Fu Panda 3 a huge amount of credit if the only thing of note it managed to do was transform an animated James Hong-voiced comic relief character, who has up till now been nothing but a vehicle for "You look so thin! Eat!" jokes, into the recipient of a deeply heartfelt and at times legitimately upsetting domestic drama subplot. It certainly does more than that; screenwriters Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger (who have been with these characters from the start and naturally know them pretty well by now) also provide Po himself with a wholly satisfying "be the best version of yourself" storyline that introduces no surprising twists for any viewer who has by this point grasped the general rhythms of the franchise's Epcot Center-level engagement with Chinese moral philosophy, but then, this is a children's movie. A certain over-processed relationship with Taoism is hardly the crime of all crimes.

We should confess that, beyond this unexpectedly and deeply rewarding triangle of parental affections, KFP3 suffers a little bit from being stuffed the gills. The film has two movies' worth of supporting casts to play with, and it seems entirely unwilling to let any of them go by without an appearance - I would say "except for the dead ones", but overcoming that seeming disqualification is one of the prime motivating factors in the plot - which leaves very few members of the busy ensemble, new or old, to have much time to make an impression. Angelina Jolie's Tigress at least gets to mostly join in the action, Dustin Hoffman's Master Shifu gets a few fun reactions and one-liners, and J.K. Simmons, a new addition to the universe as the spectral bull villain Kai, is effortlessly able to prove what we all knew all along, that Simmons would kill as an animated bad guy. But that leaves fragments of scenes for lots of other characters and plots, most unfortunately a rushed introduction to a whole community of new pandas for us to meet, who we only ever really grasp as the able vehicles for one-off gags.

Ah well. It's still a moving character study and an exciting action-adventure-comedy, and it is also desperately gorgeous. Jennifer Yuh, directing her second consecutive Kung Fu Panda after having led the animation team for one of the very best sequences in the first movie (her co-director is Alessandro Carloni, but visually this is right in line with Yuh's prior work), once again pushed DWA's colorists and effects animators to the farthest extreme that a mainstream American kids' movie about talking animals is apt to ever go: the film frequently shifts, over the course of an individual shot, from full color to a severely limited, intensely saturated field of just one hue; from fully-rendered three-dimensional CGI to cel-shaded flat planes (incidentally, while I wouldn't insist you see it this way, the film more than justifies the cost of 3-D), from Western cartooning to a more graphic, Chinese-flavored painterly style of computer animation. It's not enough to call this the most ambitious and beautiful movie DWA has made (even in some of its more "traditional" moments - the final battle, though fully in line with big studio CGI techniques, is a bravura marvel of lighting and using free-flowing kinetic shapes) - this is by far their most beautiful film, and the equal to any big-budget American animated feature out there at the level of pure design, color, and lighting.

It's a little lumpy, a little saccharine, a little obvious; sure, guilty on all charges. But this really is a delightful, darling movie, and surely in the running to end 2016 as one of the most thoroughly beguiling family movies of the year. It's flaws are all in service to its complete sincerity and heartfulness, and for that to be the takeaway of a trilogy that started because somebody once said, "what if we had a panda go around calling things 'awesome'?", now that is truly special.

Reviews in this series
Kung Fu Panda (Osborne & Stevenson, 2008)
Kung Fu Panda 2 (Yuh, 2011)
Kung Fu Panda 3 (Yuh & Carloni, 2016)