By ESTHER MENDOZA
Eight years ago, the world was introduced to the dumpling-loving, carefree panda, Po (Jack Black) in the first installment of the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise. Since then, he has become the Dragon Warrior, and alongside his pals the Furious Five and wise Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). In this film Po has to face his greatest challenge yet; finding out who he truly is.
Boasting an impressive cast and even more stunning visuals, “Kung Fu Panda 3” is another amazing installment to the twice Oscar-nominated franchise, taking viewers on a journey, as Po evolves from teacher to master. With this journey comes the biggest and most sinister villain to date, a vicious, Chi stealing bull named Kai (J. K. Simmons), who escaped from the spirit realm and is bent on destroying everything the Grand Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) created in the Peace Valley. In order to finally vanquish him, Po, with the help of his friends and newfound family, must find his inner Chi and embrace what it truly means to be the Dragon Warrior.
However, just because he is sinister does not mean he cannot be hilarious. It is Simmons’ unique mixture of intimidation and impeccable comedic timing that brought this character to life, according to one of the films co-directors, Alessandro Carloni.
“We created the character to be sort of insecure from people not knowing his name but, to our surprise, when J.K. Simmons ran with that element it became hilarious,” said Carloni. “In a way, it definitely made it more entertaining but it allowed him to be a better villain because he was more relatable. It’s not just a bad guy for the sake of being a bad guy, you can relate that he’s a broken character.”
Aside from Kai, Po is also introduced to a whole host of new characters; his family. A central theme in the film is finding yourself through your past and embracing it, something Po is helped with by his newfound father, Li (Bryan Cranston). Po travels with him to the secret panda village in hopes of finding the Chi his ancestors channeled many years prior. What he finds, however, is a clan of jolly pandas, who spend their days doing what pandas do best: eating, sleeping and rolling. Amongst them is the sassy Mei-Mei (Kate Hudson), the newest female addition to the team and one that co-director Jennifer Yuh Nelson hopes will serve as yet another strong female role model for young girls.
“Tigress is a strong female character, but we wanted to have more and see what would happen and this is the first time Po gets to meet a female Panda, and what does that mean?” said Yuh Nelson. “One thing we really wanted to do is have a female character where girls can be like ‘I want to be like her’. She’s fun, she’s full of confidence, she doesn’t need Po to like her, she’s not pining after him or anything like that in fact it’s the other way around.”
Aside from the fascinating array of characters both old and new, another staple of this franchise is its stunning visual sequences and sets. Bright and complex, the third installment brings the films to new visual heights, exploring the ethereal panda village on a snow capped mountaintop to the less defined and dream-like Spirit Realm, home to one of the film’s most riveting fight sequences between Po and Kai. However, the most fascinating element of the art direction is its use of 2D animation, which accents the masterfully crafted 3D.
“It’s becoming very rare to see anything done in 2D animation, especially in feature animated films and … it allows for sort of this graphic punch, it’s a beautifully stylized way of telling a story,” said Yu Nelson. “In the first movie it was kind of this anime, sort of edgy thing and then in the second one we did like traditional Chinese shadow puppets and in this one we … have the traditional scroll come to life which is based on Chinese water color scroll art. Each time it’s just a different tribute to how you can do 2D animation.”
Despite all of the success the films have had, the two directors have never lost sight of what is most important in the franchise: Po. Although evolving skill wise, the lovable panda has otherwise kept his charm and innocence, a trait which Carloni believes is a key reason why these films have resonated so well with the audience.
“I feel in a way that we had something special with Po himself because this franchise, like most, comes down to just the character and everything in this franchise revolves around him,” said Carloni. “We did feel something special in his charm and how he’s uniquely naïve in a way, and his charmingly childlike enthusiasm that defines him. So we knew we had something special when we started to build that but no, we did not expect the success we have had.”
This is a film that will be loved by viewers of all ages, so make sure to see “Kung Fu Panda 3” on the big screen when it is hits theatres nationwide on Jan. 29.