With recent animated charmers like Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Zootopia, there’s been a tendency within the genre to get all cerebral with complicated plots and plenty of deep thinking. Well, Kung Fu Panda 3 is here to give all that brain work a solid kick to the butt. Not that there’s anything wrong with injecting a little intelligence into animated films, and nor is there anything dumb about Kung Fu Panda 3, but sometimes it’s nice to see a big screen cartoon that just, well, really moves. Tight and tidy at a snappy 95 minutes, this is a fast paced pleaser that won’t confuse the young ones while keeping their older halves pretty entertained too.
A tale of discovery and identity, Kung Fu Panda 3 focuses on eponymous hero, Po (voiced with characteristic verve and enthusiasm by Jack Black), finally meeting up with his real father, Li (the perfectly cast Bryan Cranston), much to the chagrin of his adoptive dad, Mr. Ping (James Hong). The familial bonding, however, has to take a backseat to the action, as the evil villain, Kai (J.K. Simmons obviously had a hoot in the sound booth), returns from another dimension (or something) to steal the “chi” – or life energy (or something) – of the cuddly panda inhabitants of Po’s newly discovered home village. With his new family under threat, the butt-kicking Po must prepare them – somehow – to battle the big, bad, and nasty Kai.
Largely sidelining its impressive cast of voice talent (Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Lucy Liu, Kate Hudson, Seth Rogen, and Jackie Chan have very little to do here, and likely sent in their contributions as email sound file attachments), Kung Fu Panda 3 is a classic father-and-son story, and the vocal interplay between Jack Black and Bryan Cranston is one of the film’s highlights. The evil villain subplot, however, is a little pedestrian, but there’s more than enough humour to make up for it, and the visuals are, as expected, kaleidoscopic in their colour and energy. Kung Fu Panda 3 is no game-changer, but it’s a solid entry into a consistently fun and funny animated franchise.
Whenever you’re building something, laying the foundations is one of the toughest and most important parts of the job. It’s from there that everything juts bravely upward and outward; the foundations aren’t pretty, but they allow for the architecture to get better and better as the build progresses. It’s a pretty prosaic metaphor for a superhero movie, but that’s exactly what Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is: the foundations. There’s the heavy concrete of exposition; a multitude of joist-like characters that hold up the story; and a big, weighty narrative that crashes around like a barrow full of bricks. But in establishing its intended expansive, interconnected superhero universe of multiple stand-alone flicks and team-up movies, backing studio, Warner (who own DC Comics, the publishing giant responsible for some of the most popular characters in literary history), had to lay the right kind of platform (the preceding film, Man Of Steel, was akin to a general plan), and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is it. It’s epic, involving, exciting, and ambitious, but there’s an undeniable feeling that the best is yet to come.
Beginning during the end moments of Man Of Steel, we witness the rage of Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), as the battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) destroys most of Metropolis, levelling buildings and killing innocents. Weary from dispensing justice to well deserving criminals for over twenty years, the jaded Batman sees the hugely powerful and potentially world-destroying Superman as a different kind of threat, and sets about bringing him down. The conniving multibillionaire, Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), meanwhile, has plans for them both, which also involve Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and various other “meta-humans”, or, those with special powers.
Following through with the heavy, serious tone of Man Of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice at first feels like another all-too-familiar re-run of the classic Batman myth, as we witness the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, recoil during the young boy’s terrifying encounter with a cave full of bats, and follow the jump to an adulthood defined by vigilantism and a scary mask. And while the banter between Affleck’s Bruce Wayne and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred (along with their dark, gloomy surrounds) might loudly recall the interplay of Christian Bale and Michael Caine in the Christopher Nolan Batman films, the suggested lengthy history of this caped crusader (there’s even a hint of the previous existence of his sidekick, Robin) is what makes him special. The slow-burning tension between the damaged and angry Batman and the saintly but naïve Superman gives the film its drive and intensity, and there are very few light moments in the mix: this is a dark, sombre cinematic take on the subject of action and consequence, and how a good deed is often not done in return.
Happily, director, Zack Snyder, gets his casting bang-on: Henry Cavill and Amy Adams are great once again as Superman and Lois Lane; Ben Affleck is a wonderfully looming, embittered Batman; Jesse Eisenberg is an inspired pick to play the scheming, jittery, and decidedly millennial Lex Luthor (his full-tilt turn will without doubt be the performance that most divides the audience); Laurence Fishburne is all wildfire and well-meaning animosity as newspaper boss, Perry White; Diane Lane brings bundles of salt-of-the-earth charm as Superman’s earthly mother, Martha Kent; and a few notable (but very, very brief) superhero cameos will certainly get the adrenaline pumping. Scene stealing honours, however, unreservedly go to Gal Gadot, who makes a big splash as Wonder Woman despite her brief screen time. Fierce, funny, and courageous (and backed by great theme music), this comic book legend finally gets her due on the big screen, and it’s no disappointment.
Unfortunately, as he did on Man Of Steel, Zack Snyder lets the film get away from him in its final act. Clearly primed to throw a lot at the screen, Snyder ups the action and mayhem, but steers himself into muddy narrative territory, losing hold of character motivation, fraying his story threads, and assuming so much audience knowledge that he creates what appear to be major plot holes. Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice has a hell of a lot to do, and its deadly serious tone (the film is the absolute antithesis of Marvel Studios’ jocular, zippy, highly entertaining output) doesn’t help lighten the load. But despite its creaking, dangerously listing denouement, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is breathlessly exciting in its pop cultural import: this is a big, big film pointing up at the sky at the even bigger things to come.