This review was previously published in The National newspaper.

YOU would think that by the third part in a blockbuster animated franchise that things would have grown a little stale and repetitive. But that certainly isn’t the case with Kung Fu Panda 3, a sharp, visually resplendent and hugely entertaining third instalment in one of the best Hollywood animated series around.

The ever-lovable, charmingly buffoonish Po the Panda (Jack Black) and anointed Dragon Warrior returns after having saved his beloved village. It follows on from the surprise ending to the previous film that revealed Po’s real father (Bryan Cranston) was not dead, as previously thought. Po then reunites with long-lost dad – much to the dismay of his loving adopted one Mr Ping (James Hong) – who also reveals there’s a village of pandas waiting for his return.

While going back to his roots to get in touch with who he really is, Po learns that the villainous Kai (JK Simmons) has garnered dominating new powers afforded to him by stealing the “chi” of others. It’s then up to Po, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and his team of expert warriors to stop him.

All the things that people loved about the first two films – endearing characters, witty dialogue, acrobatic action, colourful visuals – are back and ramped up even further here, with a deft handle on the East-Asian-martial-arts-meets-goofy tone that sets it apart from other animated franchises.

Rather than falling into the sort of lazy narrative traps that many animated series so often do with increasingly cynical cash-grabbing sequels, this finds new ways to inject energy, wit and, when it comes down to it, even great emotional weight to the ongoing storyline.

It extrapolates the sumptuous visual style to greater heights, whether it’s whizz-bang fight sequences or moments of tranquillity that allow you to drink in the beautiful level of technical animation that’s gone into making it. But it also takes an even more ambitious step than before, showing off not only the ever-improving modern, 3D, Hollywood style of animation, but presenting entire sequences in a hand-drawn style that incorporates traditional Chinese painting. It’s a visual tapestry that’s something of a wonder to behold on the big-screen.

But it’s also a film that, like its predecessors, understands you need more than just visuals to make this work, as there’s a pleasing amount of work put into making us feel for the characters. The idea of delving into Po’s past turns out to be a satisfying, rather brilliant turn of plotting that’s at once full of surprises yet makes complete sense in the context of the saga.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is a joy of a film, vibrant and alive with energy, charm, top-notch voice work, memorable gags and a singular visual style that makes you wish you could stay for good in that fully realised animated world.