Paul Whitington reviews this week's other big releases - Kung Fu Panda 3, Traders, The Witch, and The Divergent Series: Allegiant
Launched in 2008 by Dreamworks as a replacement for Shrek, the Kung Fu Panda franchise has taken its time to warm up. The first movie, though likeable enough, was frantic, and overworked. A 2011 sequel was sharper, but both those films seem dull and faltering compared with this exuberant third instalment.
Jack Black returns as the voice of Po, the portly Panda who became an unlikely Kung Fu master after being groomed by a wise and ancient tortoise. In Kung Fu Panda 2, Po cemented his greatness by saving his valley from a despotic peacock, and as this film opens he's cock of the walk.
But trouble is brewing in the spirit world, from which a fearsome creature called Kai (JK Simmons) emerges to achieve world domination by stealing the chi (or life force) of the only warrior strong enough to defeat him. That would be Po, who now faces the challenge of mastering his chi before it's too late.
Kung Fu Panda 3's (4*, PG, 95mins) plot daringly blends the concepts of death and an afterlife with the usual slapstick humour and high-kicking fights. It's sweet, irresistible stuff, but the animation is absolutely spectacular, blending influences from ancient Chinese and Japanese art with a glorious palette of colours to create something truly special.
Most horror films are tacky and derivative, so a good, original one is always worth celebrating. And Robert Eggars' directorial debut The Witch (5*, 15A, 93mins) is so good it almost feels as if William Friedkin had decided to have a pop at Arthur Miller's Crucible. In 17th-century New England, a man called William (Ralph Ineson) is banished from a Puritan Christian settlement and retreats with his family to live in the forest.
He and his wife have four children, and have just given birth to a fifth when the infant disappears while in the care of their teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). She believes the baby was taken by a witch, but Thomasin's mother becomes convinced that she is the witch, and into this rift evil pours.
Mr Eggars brilliantly establishes an atmosphere of primordial dread, and the ancient forest that surrounds the family home seems to have inched ever closer each time he pans out to it. The archaic English of the protagonists lends a certain Shakespearean grandeur to their plight: these hardy settlers took their god with them to the new world, but also brought their demons.
Just to bring you up to speed, the Divergent films have charted Shailene Woodley's progress through a post-apocalyptic future in which mankind's remnants have been sorted into convenient personality types. Her character, Tris Prior, doesn't fit into any of them, and over the course of the first two films became an avenging heroine.
Now the arch baddie (Kate Winslet) is dead, and Tris and her ally Tobias (Theo James) decide to scale the high walls of the ruined Chicago and find out if anyone is alive on the other side. They find answers, but not the ones they want.
The Divergent Series: Allegiant (3*, 12A, 121mins) includes a lot more action than its rather funereal predecessors and the special effects are strong. But they take their own sweet time with the storytelling, and a final Divergent film is on the way.
Written and directed by Peter Murphy and Rachel Moriarty, Traders (3*, 16, 90mins) is an Irish psychological thriller that works fairly well - for a while. Killian Scott is Harry, a Celtic Tiger banker-type whose world comes tumbling down after the crash.
With a huge mortgage to service, he's drawn in desperation to a website a work colleague has set up in which strangers fight to the death for cash.
Murphy and Moriarty almost make their absurd premise work at first, and Killian Scott and John Bradley are good in pivotal roles. But the idea is quickly stretched too thin, and a preachy streak in the writing becomes tedious.
Charlie Kaufman is a true original, and while he doesn't make many films, the ones he has certainly stick in your mind. I remember watching his first, Being John Malkovich, back in 1999, and being deeply impressed by the imagination and sheer nerve of a writer prepared to set an entire drama inside a movie star's mind. In Adaptation (2002), Kaufman created two fictional versions of himself in order to have an extended argument, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) tackled the vexed question of memory by imagining that we could erase it.