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The newest panda in the Kung Fu franchise is sillier than it is funny

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It's amazing, but not altogether surprising, that after two movies Po is still a disaster of a panda bear. He's become a kung fu master and saved his village from dastardly villains more than once, yet he's still an unorthodox klutzy man-child who seems to destroy everything in his path.

Perhaps expecting personal growth from an animated character is too much, but it's a bit lazy to begin Kung Fu Panda 3 with a Po afflicted with the same flaws he had in the first two films. Jack Black voices Po, and Black's lovable-buffoon screen persona has treated him well through the years. But with Po, it's as if there's a rule that he has to start every movie inept in some way, only to overcome the ineptitude by accident in the course of saving the day. In this instance, Po has no idea how to take over training duties when Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) decides to retire. Enter cohorts Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Tigress (Angelina Jolie) and Viper (Lucy Liu), who try to help, but of course there are bigger issues at hand.

A supernatural villain named Kai (J.K. Simmons) is a bull trapped in the spirit world. He seeks "chi," an apparently bottle-able energy that flows through all living things. You know, like the Force. Kai succeeds in taking Master Oogway's (Randall Duk Kim) chi, and with it he ventures to the mortal world to seek out the chi of other kung fu masters. A collision course with Po is obvious, but not until after Po finds his own chi, which comes from his long-lost father (Bryan Cranston) and scores of other pandas Po didn't know existed.

The 3-D is fine but not necessary, as the action moves quickly and isn't always accentuated by the third dimension. However, Hans Zimmer's musical score is catchy, and directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh Nelson find cuteness in new places this time, particularly Po's equally childish father and the other pandas they encounter. Cranston, Simmons and Kate Hudson as a female panda hold their own as newcomers amongst the considerable ensemble; looking at the cast, it'd be great to see these actors together in a live-action film rather than an animated movie in which their skills are restrained by the cartoonishness of their characters.

To the filmmakers' credit, the story is a natural extension of the franchise's universe, which temporarily obscures the fact that Kung Fu Panda 3 is a clear cash grab for DreamWorks Animation after the first two films earned a combined $380 million at the domestic box office. And like its predecessors, it's sillier than it is funny, which makes sense given its pre-teen target demo.

So as expected, there's not much here for adults. But will those pre-teens like it? The screening I attended was full of youngsters, and the only sound I heard from them was consistent laughter, not chatter. Sounded like an endorsement to me.

3 out of 5 stars

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