Saturday 23 April 2016

Soft bellies: "Kung Fu Panda 3"

It feels some while since 2011's Kung Fu Panda 2, but then a year is a long time in a marketplace where there's now a medium-to-high profile animation release every school holiday. (Back in the day, when these films took far longer to manufacture - and it was all fields, rather than Frankie and Benny's and Cheesecake Factories, around the Odeon - you were lucky to see two a year.) In the course of just under a decade, this mid-ranking franchise has stepped forward, film by film, to occupy the vacuum left once the Toy Story series went on hiatus; its orientalist bent - evident in a voice cast that has encompassed Jack Black and Jackie Chan, Angelina Jolie and Lucy Liu - has presumably allowed it to obtain a greater foothold in the emergent Asian markets than, say, the Snoopy or Marmaduke movies ever managed.

Narratively, each instalment has concerned itself with nudging tubby hero Po (Black) further and further away from the undermotivated, mateless sloth he began as. This third pass, which sees the writing staff continuing to raid the Buddhist (or Alcoholics Anonymous) playbook for plot points, has Po turning teacher, and attempting to pass on his learnings to others; he's also obliged to take breaking news about his lineage - plus the arrival from the spirit world of a massive warrior buffalo (voiced by J.K. Simmons) - in his stubby-legged stride. Yet if this series has anything like a signature move, it's in (under)cutting its drama and mysticism with bathetic punchlines and goofy asides: Po's dramatic entrance involves him jumping the queue at a noodle bar, while one character's adoption of heavy battle armour leads to an ornamental vase being filled with vomit. Mostly, directors Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carioni plump for a form of well-cushioned slapstick that suggests a gentler, less inventive Looney Toon or pixellated Paul Blart - and the dumpling-guzzling Po is indeed a hero that kids raised in the middle of an obesity epidemic might cheer all the way back to the popcorn counter. 

Amid long stretches of workaday CG artistry, the background design spins pleasing variations on crimson and jade, arriving at the occasional Hokusai landscape and something more besides in the spirit realm, where the animators can play as fast and loose with gravitational logic as Inside Out did within the Zone of Abstract Thought. Of subtext, however, there is nothing, save a very lightly sketched vision of different species working together for good - an idea reportedly punched up in Disney's Easter release Zootropolis. While it's bumbling along, Kung Fu Panda 3 is fine, entirely adequate product that should provide ninety minutes of much-needed peace and quiet for accompanying adults. (Bonus: the 3D glasses may assist in dozing.) Still, I do wonder what this glut of animated films is teaching our young beyond an obligation to turn up at the multiplex and hand over their pocket money come what may whenever school is out. This series has proven far less opportunistic and grabby in this respect than some, granted, but it remains really no more than an exercise in training up our inner consumer: call it Zen and the art of demographic maintenance.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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