For the third outing in this cuddly martial arts franchise, Jack Black is on top vocal form again as Po, the dumpling munching saviour who has greatness thrust upon him but can only reach his true potential (eating and spiritual) when he finds his real self.
The zen-like lessons of the Kung Fu Panda films go hand in paw with the beautiful animation techniques which mix all kinds of chinoiserie, including ink drawings and block paintings. The same can be said of the narrative style, which blends the mysticism of wu-xia epics with the more modern chopsocky and comic traits of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan (the latter, of course, lends his voice to the character of Monkey).
It's an all together very satisfying mix of characters and character, with Po a fascinating work of self-discovery in progress. Here, he comes face to face with his real father, bringing to a head the long-running gag of the previous movies in which he had dealt with his adoption by a goose who runs a noodle restaurant (brilliantly voiced as ever by James Hong).
But now real Dad, Li, turns up (Bryan Cranston) and gives Po his first belly-to-belly with a real panda and promising his new-found son a journey to a secret Panda village where he can mix with his furry kind for the first time.
Po's inner journey co-incides with him having to Panda-up at the command of Master Shifu, the wonderful zen master (he's supposed to be a red panda, apparently - whatever, it's seriously one of the best parts Dustin Hoffman's ever played) who is retiring to concentrate on his mastery of the chi, the life force that runs through all things. Shifu is putting Po in charge of training the Furious Five, all of whom return for the threequel: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen) and Monkey (Jackie Chan).
But Po's a useless teacher and will be until he learns his true self. Unfortunately, time is running out because Kai, a snarling warrior Yak (voiced by JK Simmons), has returned from the spirit realm to claim the kingdom, mightier than ever having stolen the chi of every past master and bottled it into tiny jade amulets which he keeps on his belt.
Yes, part of Kung Fu Panda's success is that it is bonkers. There's a pleasant psychedelic quality to it (check out the trippy spirit realm in this one) that's boosted by Black's own California dude charm.
When Po finally reaches the panda village, it's fun all the way as cute little pups roll down hillsides and stuff dumplings in their cheeks while the adults loll and nuzzle. There's even room for Po's first bit of panda love, smitten as he is by a ribbon dancer called Mei Mei, peppily voiced by Kate Hudson. I was rather hoping this went somewhere - maybe we'll have to wait for KFP4.
So the classic montage scene is set as Po trains his kin and kind in using the ways of the Panda to defeat the powerful Kai and we watch our pandas go from huffing-puffing pillows to self-taught warriors of the furriest kind. The mantra is a very kid-friendly €œbe more you€, even if that skill involves over-eating and lazing about til noon.
These films certainly couldn't be more fun. Yes, maybe I'd have liked a few more jokes, but actually a respite from the wisecracking rhythms of so many talking animal cartoons is quite welcome, and what with the animation, the physical comedy, the cuddly warmth of the father-son-adopted father storyline, the action, the catapulting pandas, the sexy purring Tigress and the general awesomeness, I liked it all.
And then we went for dumplings and noodles in Chinatown. We weren't going to, but my eldest son, 7, said in some despair: €œWe need to eat what the Kung Fu Panda does otherwise that baddie Kai will come and get us.€
So we did, and, you know what? So far we haven't heard a peep out of that pesky yak.