I'm always shocked, bewildered - a little lost at sea - after watching DreamWorks Animation's Kung Fu Panda films.
I come expecting empty-headed, childish prattle. After all, these are monstrously budgeted $130 million-plus tentpole productions aimed at the biggest, broadest global mass audience imaginable. Those kinds of films usually can't afford to be anything but loud, flashy vehicles for bland content.
Yet, I leave the theater in awe - of the films' sheer beauty, their pure, unspoiled heart, and their openness to engage with young viewers without patronizing them or treating them as mere consumers.
It happened again Wednesday night at a screening of Kung Fu Panda 3, a 3D American-Chinese production that takes franchise hero Po (voiced by Jack Black) on an epic existential journey that reunites him with his long-lost father (Bryan Cranston) and reconnects him through his dad with his inner pandahood.
A gorgeous visual treat, the film doesn't fetishize its 3D effects, but uses them in service to story and characters.
And such characters! We've already grown to love them from the first two films: There's the lovely and deadly Tigress (Angelina Jolie), the wise Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), flirtatious dancer Mei Mei (Kate Hudson), friendly slitherer Viper (Lucy Liu), and playful Monkey (Jackie Chan).
The story opens with a deadly battle in the spirit realm between Master Shifu and Kai (J.K. Simmons), a power-hungry bull who has defeated dozens of martial arts masters. Instead of killing them, he steals their chi, or life-force, using it to make himself stronger.
Master Shifu loses, setting the stage for Po to take up the fight and save the world.
But the Kung Fu Panda films aren't really about punches and kicks. They're about facing up to your fears and discovering your inner strength.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is especially insightful because it shows that inner battles aren't resolved by gazing at your navel, but by connecting to others. Po, who has always believed he was the last panda, learns this when he discovers a whole village of pandas.
It's easy to mistake the simplicity of plot and theme here for simplemindedness - this isn't Pynchon or Proust. Kung Fu Panda 3 has the economy of a Zen koan, not to mention its inner harmony and wisdom.
Kung Fu Panda 3 ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni. With Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (martial arts action, some mild rude humor).
Playing at: Area theaters.