Kung Fu Panda 3 (Alessandro Carloni/Jennifer Yuh)
In the interest of full disclosure, I must announce that I went to college with one of the two screenwriters – Jonathan Aibel – of this new DreamWorks Animation picture. He and his longtime writing partner, Glenn Berger (whom I have never met), after first making a name for themselves collaborating on scripts for the FOX TV show King of the Hill, and then anonymously script-doctoring on feature films, finally received their first on-screen movie credit for Kung Fu Panda. They did not originate that screenplay, but changed enough of it that the WGA, in arbitration, determined that they should share credit with the original screenwriters.† That film was a success, and they were then contracted for the sequel (along with other films for DreamWorks, and other studios, such as Monsters vs. Aliens, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water and the upcoming Trolls). Whatever conflict of interest that may present for yours truly (check out my review of SpongeBob to see that I am capable of mixing praise with criticism, however mild, to a friend), I am happy to report that the latest installment in the adventures of Po, the Panda, is a winner, even if not quite as sublime as its predecessor. If you enjoyed the first two films, you must see this one, as it offers what feels like the perfect conclusion to a lovely trilogy. Of course, if it makes money, there might be another one, but let’s pretend, for now, that the series ends here. After all, how many times can Aibel and Berger (sorry, Aibel & Berger*) work their considerable magic to create yet one more interesting journey of self-discovery for their main character?
The first Kung Fu Panda was released in 2008; the second in 2011. When we last we saw Po, he had come more into his own – after embracing his destiny as an unlikely kung fu master in the first movie – defeating a powerful enemy of China and saving his friends, the “Furious Five.” He had also discovered that he was adopted (i.e., not the son of his goose dad), and we had seen, in the final scene, that his biological father was alive and well, living in a secret village of fellow pandas. Kung Fu Panda 2 confirmed that it is possible for a sequel to enrich an established world and add a profound backstory to its characters (Aliens and The Godfather: Part II also stand out, for me). All the while enjoying the witty banter, amusing antics and beautiful animation, I found myself quite sincerely moved by the tale of Po’s origins in that second installment. It was a masterpiece of family entertainment, good for kids and adults, alike.
Here, we pick up that family thread, and learn much more about the power of pandas. But don’t worry, all of our old friends are back, with Jack Black (Bernie) as Po, Dustin Hoffman (Chef) as Shifu and character actor James Hong (R.I.P.D.) as Mr. Ping (the goose), as well as the Furious Five, all of whom have various well-known actors voicing them, even if they have few lines, including Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) and Lucy Liu (Elementary). Bryan Cranston (Trumbo) joins the cast as Li, Po’s father, as does J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) as Kai, this movie’s villain. To complement that considerable array of vocal talent, DreamWorks has pulled out all the stops and given its animation department enormous artistic freedom, allowing them to create a gorgeous world of carefully designed landscapes that surround the characters and immerse us in a truly cinematic experience. I have always been impressed with what DreamWorks can do (How to Train Your Dragon 2 was especially beautiful) – they are, for me, the only animation studio that can rival Pixar in loving attention to visual detail – but here they have outdone themselves. Not only is the 3D animation a delight, but the way they mix in 2D and multiple-panel storytelling, as occasionally befits the narrative, feels truly inspired.
As the movie opens, Po is satisfied with the place he has found among his friends, happy to be recognized for his previous accomplishments. Of course, this contentment cannot last (or we’d have no movie), and the unraveling begins first with the arrival of General Kai, freshly returned from the land of dead, ready to reconquer China, and second with the arrival of Li, who wants Po to reconnect with his panda roots. Just as his country needs him, in other words, Po stands torn between his duty to the cause and his duty to family. It’s a good dual conflict, with high stakes for all. Along the way, despite the threats to peace and prosperity, there are plenty of jokes, most of which land, and a good time is had by all (of us). Skadoosh, indeed!
[*Here’s an interesting bit of trivia, in case you have ever wondered about the difference between “and” and “&” in screenwriting credits. An “and” means that people have worked separately, as in you did your draft and I did mine. An “&” means that they have worked together, in collaboration, as in Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger always work as partners. If you see both both, that means that there were multiple drafts credited, and at least one of those drafts was written by a pair or group of people, together.]
[†Correction from later on 1/29/16, courtesy of Jonathan Aibel, himself: “As an FYI, DreamWorks isn’t a WGA signatory, so there is no WGA arbitration on their movies. Credit is determined internally. On the first Panda, the story credit was given to the two writers who first fleshed out the title (they came up with the basic premise of the five animals representing the five styles of kung fu, for instance). After they wrote a draft or two, other writers came on. At least 3 by my count. Then we joined, starting more or less from scratch. So in the end, there wasn’t any debate over the credit – we didn’t originate the premise (so didn’t get a story credit) – but we were the writers for every scene in the final movie (hence, screenplay credit). Because we originated Pandas 2 and 3 and wrote them all the way through we have ‘Written By’ credit: that’s the writing credit that incorporates both story and screenplay.”]