Move over, Poe Dameron. Po the panda is back in town. And this Dragon Warrior is every bit as brave as the galaxy's favorite Resistance pilot.
DreamWorks Animation's Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) ended with a revelation: The biological father of Po (voice of Jack Black) is alive and living in a faraway panda Shangri-La. That set things up for a reunion between Po - who had been living with his adoptive father, a goose - and his birth family.
In a prologue, Kung Fu Panda 3 wastes no time getting to the heart of its central conflict. The late kung fu master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) - the tortoise who selected the unlikely Po as the legendary Dragon Warrior - is trying to enjoy his eternal rest when he's interrupted by Kai (J.K. Simmons), an angry yak Oogway had exiled to the Spirit Realm. Stuck there for centuries, Kai's been stealing the chi, or energy, of ancient kung fu masters and turning it into amulets that transform into jade soldiers at his command. Attacking Oogway allows Kai to return to the mortal realm to continue his attempt at world domination, leaving only Po to stop him.
Simmons is a natural as the vengeful Kai, having perfected his ominous baritone in everything from HBO's prison drama Oz to his Oscar-winning performance as a tyrannical music teacher in Whiplash.
By contrast, Bryan Cranston dials up the dulcet tones to play Po's returned papa Li, who convinces Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) that he can teach Po the ancient art of chi necessary to defeat Kai. Li's presence delights Po, who's thrilled merely to discover that other pandas exist. (He's especially excited to learn that other pandas don't waste time using chopsticks, but stuff dumplings directly into their mouths with their paws.) Meanwhile, Po's doting adoptive father (James Hong) is understandably worried that the instant bond between Li and Po will leave no room for a noodle-making goose.
With the film's focus shifting to the pandas' ancestral village in the mountains, there's little for the original Furious Five to do except for Tigress (Angelina Jolie). Master Shifu and the rest of his protégés - Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross) - are AWOL for the bulk of the story. Most viewers won't mind, though. In addition to Li, a few other notable new characters enter the story, including the overconfident, ribbon-dancing panda Mei Mei (Kate Hudson). She flirts with a clueless Po while an assortment of adorable panda cubs toddle around Mr. Ping in hopes of more noodles and dumplings.
Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni deploy a gorgeous color palette for the Chinese countryside, using vibrant, swirling shades of green, blue and red for the panda hideaway. Rich golden tones color the Spirit Realm, where some of the climactic fights take place. The directors also make sure to let Po stay the charming bumbler he's always been. That's what makes him such an earnest, lovable hero.
It's also what makes this franchise such a winner. As the cuddly Chosen One comes to terms with his own destiny, he helps everyone else discover their best selves, too.
Three stars. Rated PG. Contains martial arts action and mild rude humor. 95 minutes.