Quite a bit different from the first film I reviewed in 2015, “Jupiter Ascending,” we have the first great film of 2016 with “Kung Fu Panda 3.” I know, I’m as surprised as you are.
What I have loved about the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise is how it sneaks up on me and pulls off the unexpected – By taking laughable and ludicrous ideas, like animated animals performing kung-fu and having the lead character be voiced by Jack Black, and turns it around to make a film that is visually pleasing, consistently funny, full of well-coreographed action sequences, surprisingly complex writing, and morals that stay true to their martial art roots while still being important in the real world.
This franchise is the definition of not judging a book by its cover. I would even dare to say that “Kung Fu Panda 2” is one of the greatest animated films in recent memory, and certainly the best animated sequel, as it improves upon the characters and mythology of the first film to give us an emotional tale of learning from the past and the chaotic consequences that come with it.
Which brings us to the most recent entry in this series, after a five-year absence. And while the final product seems rushed at times and lacking in the character department, especially after the last film, there is no denying that it was a blast to watch and is everything I’ve come to expect from these films.
The Dragon Warrior, Po (Jack Black), and the Furious Five, are given their most recent assignment, when Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) announces that he will not longer be teaching them, and that this duty will be handed over to Po. The panda is surprised by this, as is everyone else, but Shifu says there is a lot more hidden potential within Po that being a teacher would bring out of him. This takes a backseat though when Po’s father, Li (Bryan Cranston), shows up and offers to take Po to the hidden village of Pandas.
But a new threat appears in the form of the Spirit-Warrior, Kai (J.K. Simmons), having returned from the spirit world by collecting the chi of every kung-fu master, including Shifu’s mentor, Oogway. Kai is intent on gathering the chi of the Dragon Warrior and ruling over China, using his jade minions in the shape of each animal martial arts master.
To be honest, “Kung Fu Panda 3” has the weakest story of the trilogy. While the earlier two films focused on the evolution of Po, from a lowly character lacking self-confidence into someone who had mastered inner peace, this film follows Po’s journey passing that knowledge onto others, in particular other pandas who have never seen society before. Most of the new characters are not given much screen time, aside from Li, but we’re still given distinct character traits for most of them, like the pandas that love to roll or the ribbon dancer (voiced by Kate Hudson).
Kai is certainly a down-grade in terms of villainy. Admittedly, it would have been impossible to top Gary Oldman’s manacle yet elegant Lord Shen from “Kung Fu Panda 2,” but Kai is only interested in one thing – power. At least Tai Lung from the first film did everything out of a sense of revenge and showed the depth of Master Shifu’s character, while Shen was so blinded by making his own future that he couldn’t see his own demise coming. But Kai just wants to rule China because that sounds good to him.
Still, “Kung Fu Panda 3” gives us just enough characterization out of new characters like the pandas and Kai that Po’s struggle between finding out who he truly is and where he belongs is an enjoyable ride.
The best character development in this film is, believe it or not, Po’s adopted father Mr. Ping (James Hong), who is angered and upset over the arrival of Po’s biological father, to the point that he hides in his son’s food on his journey to the panda village. But by the end, Mr. Ping realizes that he isn’t losing Po, but allowing Po to share his love with Li, who had lost everything he ever cared about and now clings to the hope that his son is alive.
Part of me feels like the minimal characterization does not mean much, since I got exactly what I wanted out of this film either way – Beautiful and fluid martial arts fights set over the colorful China landscape, with enough humor and heart to make the kid and adult in me happy. Like the previous films, this one is visually pleasing from start to finish. From the renovated Jade Palace and its vast halls full of ancient kung-fu artifacts, to the decay spirit realm, to the hidden panda village that lies floating in the mist.
My only other complaint is that the film moves too fast at times. Just when we start to know these new characters, we’re thrown right into the final battle with Kai, only a few moments after Kai’s last attack. Part of this might be the short hour-and-a-half runtime, but I would have liked to see a bit more of the Panda village and watching Po and Tigress (Angelina Jolie) getting ready for a fight they feel they cannot win. Maybe if the film was 20 or 30 minutes longer, giving more time for atmosphere and tension to build up, that could have been fixed.
Overall, “Kung Fu Panda 3” might have been a downgrade from the previous installments, but this was still a blast to watch. It has everything you’ve come to expect from this franchise in spades. Every scene has something memorable about it, ranging from the animation, to humor, to character development and fast-paced action sequences. If you liked the first two “Kung Fu Panda” films, then you’ll love this one too.
Final Grade: B+