This image released by DreamWorks Animation shows characters Po, voiced by Jack Black, left, and his long-lost panda father Li, voiced by Bryan Cranston, in a scene from "Kung Fu Panda 3." (DreamWorks Animation via AP)

This image released by DreamWorks Animation shows characters Po, voiced by Jack Black, left, and his long-lost panda father Li, voiced by Bryan Cranston, in a scene from "Kung Fu Panda 3." (DreamWorks Animation via AP)

Reeling it in: ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ hits its mark

‘King Fu Panda 3’

DreamWorks Animation

1 hour, 35 minutes

I think what makes Po, Jack Black’s titular pugilist panda in the “Kung Fu Panda” movies, so ridiculously likeable is that he is such a fan. It’s that same enthusiasm that makes Jimmy Fallon work as a talk show host. No one is saying Jimmy Fallon is the best writer, comedian, or performer out there. He’s not as prepped as Carson or as smart as Letterman. But he just honestly loves the job and it shows.

It’s the same with Po — Tigress, voiced by Angelina Jolie, is obviously better at Kung Fu than he is — but Po is so obviously in love with his place in the world, at the very idea that he gets to exist in proximity to his heroes, and that joy is what makes these movies work so well, despite all logic. When I heard that the company responsible for “Shrek” was going to make a movie about a Panda that knew Kung Fu starring Jack Black, I logically assumed it would be all fat and fart jokes. The movie should have been terrible. Just like no one would have believed that the guy who couldn’t get through a scene on Saturday Night Live without cracking up would one day take over The Tonight Show.

Luckily, I was very, very wrong about “Kung Fu Panda,” and this week my family and I had a blast watching that series’ third installment.

If you’re not aware, “Kung Fu Panda” tells the story of the previously mentioned Po, adopted son of a duck who runs a noodle shop in a small village just outside the Jade Palace somewhere in ancient China. Po is the “Dragon Warrior” a spiritual protector of the village, so anointed in the first film much to the chagrin of the actual Kung Fu warriors who study at the Jade Palace, the so-called “Furious 5.”

The five — Masters Mantis, Monkey, Viper, Crane, and the aforementioned Tigress — have since become Po’s best friends and the group, with the frequent assistance of their teacher, Master Shifu, spend their time battling all manner of threats to their home, to China, and to the very fabric of Kung Fu itself.

At the opening of this latest film, we find ourselves in the spirit realm where an ancient enemy is settling old debts. Apparently, even in the peaceful trippiness of the spirit world, there are still Kung Fu battles. Kai, a hulking cape buffalo, is stealing the Chi (lifeforce) of all the ancient dead masters in an attempt to return to the world of the living. Upon the defeat of the ever enigmatic Oogway (a tortoise), Kai emerges into the corporeal realm with a host of mindless jade servants, bent on conquest.

In the meantime, Po is getting re-acquainted with his heritage as his father, assumed to be long lost, re-emerges and reveals the existence of a secret Panda village. Po will have to come to terms with both his limitations and the strengths of those around him if he and China are going to survive against onslaught of the mad Kai and his undead warriors.

If you couldn’t tell, they pack a lot of plot into these “Kung Fu Panda” movies. They also pack a lot of jokes, but to the writers’ credit, there is very little superfluous padding, and most of the jokes land perfectly. Part of this is due to the script, and part is due to the ridiculously talented voice cast that has been assembled for these films. Jack Black and Angelina Jolie are just the two biggest names, but don’t forget Dustin Hoffman, Bryan Cranston, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogan, J.K. Simmons and Jackie Chan for crying out loud. It’s a lot of fun listening to these amazing performers voice such an eclectic group of characters.

One of the most amusing and creative aspects of these films is the wide variety of creatures the filmmakers can imaging practicing Kung Fu. In past films, in addition to the previously mentioned, we had a snow leopard, crocodile, a rhino, wolves, and a peacock. This film doubles down and offers up a porcupine, a pair of badgers, a gorilla, a dolphin, a bear, and, our personal favorite, a chicken. My kids have been repeating the following line all week: (Mantis and Crane are trying to psyche themselves up to enter a dark building to battle Kai, citing the fact that numerous other Kung Fu masters have gone before.) “Even Master Chicken is going in! And he’s a chicken!”

OK, it’s not award-winning writing, but you can’t beat the image of squat, armored chicken, waddling into the fray with a mighty “Squaawwk!”

One other aspect of these films I’d like to bring up is the animation. These days it’s a no-brainer to say that the animation is amazing. CG just gets better and better, to the point where it actually leaves the rest of the movie in the dust — see, (or don’t) “The Good Dinosaur.”

“Kung Fu Panda” however, does something different. In addition to the standard, yet gorgeous computer generated animation, each of these films includes a sequence animated in a completely different style — almost like a cartoon within a cartoon. The first film included a sequence reminiscent of classic Animé, and “Kung Fu Panda 2” included a jaw-dropping mechanical puppet shadow play that fills in the film’s backstory. This latest film brings to life the beautiful watercolor scrolls that represent some of the best of Chinese traditional art. These sequences aren’t long, but they are amazingly creative.

The “Kung Fu Panda” films are some of the best work to come out of the Dreamworks Animation studio since they were established nearly 20 years ago. “Kung Fu Panda 3” is action-packed, funny, and, keeping in line with the other films in the series, surprisingly sweet and gentle. My family had a ball, and I’m sure yours will too.

Grade: A-

“Kung Fu Panda 3” is rated PG for mild rude humor and cartoon violence.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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