'Kung Fu Panda 3'
The ‘Kung Fu Panda’ series has always been far better than it had any right to be. Hinged on a simple cartoon premise (cute animal who has no business learning martial arts becomes master, d’awww…), it’s filled with such wit, heart and visual invention that each chapter managed to easily surpass expectations. The third entry, which seems to wrap up the series as a trilogy, is probably the weakest in the series. Still, the movie has enough amusing gags and beautifully rendered action scenes that it’s hard to complain.
The formula is starting to get a little creaky and familiar, and it’s a little bizarre that the characters haven’t yet figured out that being yourself will defeat the final foe given that it happened twice before. But hey, it could have been so much worse. At least this wraps up the series with a satisfying romp rather than an overextended embarrassment.
Things kick off in the underworld as a new beast of a villain named Kai (J.K. Simmons) defeats an ancient tortoise master and emerges as an immortal on Earth, determined to claim the souls of all the remaining kung-fu masters. Yikes. Back in Po’s (Jack Black) little world, a couple new crises have emerged. First off, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) has decided to retire, putting Po in charge of training his students, which he just can’t handle. (Oh boy!) Then to cap off the cliffhanger from ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’, his father (Bryan Cranston) arrives unexpectedly and invites Po back to a secret Panda hideaway to learn the ways of his people (mostly involving overeating, rolling down hills and other fat jokes). It turns out that the pandas also hold the secret of chi, which Po needs to defeat the big spooky bad guy terrorizing the countryside by swallowing up the chi of kung-fu masters everywhere. Oh no! Could Po possibly learn the challenging new skill in time to defeat the villain? Have you seen a kung-fu movie before? Well, play along with the suspense anyway. It’s fun.
First, the good news. The film looks amazing and plays beautifully as candy-colored entertainment. Co-directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh take particular delight in the action scenes, whipping their virtual cameras around characters, thrusting fights across dimensions, splitting the screen like a comic book, and essentially tossing every possible visual trick at the screen while still delivering clear, coherent and thrilling action. It works wonderfully as an action blockbuster and it’s amusing to see old kung-fu movie conventions reach such a mass scale thanks to filmmakers who genuinely appreciate the genre, not just the gimmicks.
The jokes are mostly adorable and the voice cast all deliver in their cast-to-type roles with glee (with particular perfection coming from Dustin Hoffman’s wise master, James Hong’s jealous father, and Jack Black doing his thing). The messages of individuality and unconventional family values are sweet and well woven into the jokey, action-packed narrative without shoving morals down children’s throats. As an entertainment machine, it’s nearly impossible not to be charmed by what the DreamWorks Animation team… errr… dreamed up.
The only downside is that the movie doesn’t do much that hasn’t been done before and fatigue is starting to crop up around the edges. Doubling, tripling and even quadrupling down on fat jokes by introducing a lost race of pandas gets old fast – though the way the movie suggests slovenly lifestyle choices should be part of any true kung-fu master’s regime is an amusing premise. The much hyped father/son reunion plot never goes anywhere particularly memorable. The eventual reveal of how Po learns to master chi feels like a tacked-on deus ex machina that conveniently arrives at the right narrative moment rather than a natural climax. The new villain doesn’t get enough screen time to be anywhere near as imposing or memorable as his predecessors. The team of friends/fighters that Po has partnered with for two movies barely register in the story to make room for new characters who aren’t quite as endearing. The whole thing has a faintly overstuffed and half-baked feeling of a studio mandated sequel that the writers couldn’t quite justify.
That being said, this thankfully isn’t a ‘Spider-Man 3’ or ‘X-Men 3’ scenario where the movie completely gets away from its makers in favor of meeting a release date and keeping the studio overlords happy. The folks behind ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ have delivered a delightful bit of animated blockbuster fluff that’ll have family audiences wandering out of the theater satisfied. The trouble is just that the standard was so high in the first two ‘Kung Fu Panda’ flicks that good doesn’t quite feel good enough. It’s fun, sure, just not quite as impressive as what came before.
Fair enough. It was amazing that the last two ‘Kung Fu Panda’ movies worked as well as they did. The fact that the makers managed to squeeze out a satisfying third entry is a minor miracle. At least the filmmakers have the good taste to wrap up the story in such a way that it feels like a conclusion to the whole saga. They got away with it, and hopefully the series ends here, making it a success. One more of these would push things too far. It’s time for DreamWorks to stop while it’s ahead and try to deliver the next charming franchise. We’re due for something fresh from the studio. No more numbers after titles for at least a couple years, please (and pun sequel titles don’t count either).