Dirs: Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni. US. 2016. 94mins

Kung Fu Panda 3

The plentiful, sophisticated visual pleasures of Kung Fu Panda 3 are even more striking when juxtaposed against a simplistic story that never quite keeps pace. Fitfully amusing and certainly heartfelt, this latest chapter in the likeable animated saga will work best with younger viewers, but its life lessons and emotional beats feel slathered on rather than deftly woven into the storyline. Even Jack Black’s big-kid charms as the voice of that karate-kicking panda can only take this forgettable diversion so far.

Po is still a slovenly, adorable panda trying to find himself. But that search just isn’t as rewarding as it used to be.       

Opening in China and the US on January 29, Kung Fu Panda 3 is the first film in the franchise in five years. Will fans of the two earlier instalments, which together grossed $1.3 billion worldwide, be excited for a follow-up — or have they grown up and moved on? The betting is that without much competition in the marketplace for family films right now, Kung Fu Panda 3 will be a strong performer, even though it’s not being released during the summer as the previous two films were. Worth following, also, will be its reception in China: the filmmakers took the unprecedented step of reanimating the movie so that the characters’ mouths sync perfectly with the dialogue’s Mandarin translation.

Black again provides the voice of Po, the sweet, husky, bighearted panda who has graduated to the level of Dragon Warrior, although he’s nervous about becoming a martial-arts teacher himself. But this latest step in his personal evolution comes at a time of unexpected crisis: a powerful warrior named Kai (voiced by J.K. Simmons) emerges from the Spirit Realm to collect the chi of China’s greatest kung fu fighters, and he’s gunning for Po. At the same time, Po’s long-lost biological father Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston) tracks him down, causing the young panda to question his place in the world.

Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni hew closely to the tonal template of the first two instalments, mixing a hero’s journey with muscular action sequences and a goofy sense of humour. (Yuh Nelson was head of story on Kung Fu Panda and directed its sequel, while Carloni was a story artist on the first two films.)

That formula still has its delights, but Kung Fu Panda 3, much like 2011’s Kung Fu Panda 2, doesn’t have the same consistently inspired spark that powered the original film. Instead, we must make do with gorgeous, inventive animation that, during particularly stunning sequences, can recall graphic novels or even Chinese paintings. Yuh Nelson and Carloni’s visuals have a dramatic, almost mythic grandeur — moving from wintry mountains to parched deserts, from China to the strange Spirit Realm — that can be stirring on a visceral, elemental level. Matched with Hans Zimmer’s percussive score, those sweeping images put a lump in the throat.

Unfortunately, screenwriting team Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (who have written every film in the series) recycle once-touching narrative themes and introduce new characters that aren’t as memorable as some older characters who are pushed to the margins. Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu has little to do, and while Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong) still has a significant part to play, he’s become more of a one-note character. (As for Po’s kung fu compatriots — voiced by the likes of Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen and others — they’re hardly in the picture at all.)

Simmons has a little fun playing the fearsome Kai, who gets awfully irritable when people haven’t heard of him, while Cranston lends as much warmth as he can to the role of Li. But both characters end up feeling like storytelling devices to further Po’s character change, especially when Li’s offer to take Po back to a secret panda village comes with a predictable twist attached.

To be sure, Kung Fu Panda 3 has a surfeit of worthy themes — the uncomfortable tension between a son and his adoptive and biological families, the need to discover one’s authentic voice — and Black’s inimitable kindness pours from his performance, making Po a consistently sympathetic figure. But what was once surprising and joyful about 2008’s Kung Fu Panda — the realisation that Black’s boisterous, guileless enthusiasm lent itself perfectly to animation — now feels a little programmatic. Po is still a slovenly, adorable panda trying to find himself. But that search just isn’t as rewarding as it used to be.       

Production companies: Fox, DreamWorks Animation SKG, China Film Co., Ltd., Oriental DreamWorks, Zhong Ming You Ying Film

Worldwide distribution: Fox, www.foxmovies.com

Producer: Melissa Cobb

Executive producers: Mike Mitchell, Guillermo del Toro, La Peikang, Li Ruigang

Screenplay: Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger

Production design: Raymond Zibach

Editor: Clare Knight

Music: Hans Zimmer

Website: www.dreamworks.com/Kung-Fu-Panda-3

Main Voice Cast: Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, J.K. Simmons, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Kate Hudson, James Hong, Randall Duk Kim, Jackie Chan