Film Review – Kung Fu Panda 3
Kung Fu Panda 3
If you were never a fan of Dreamworks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda series, then Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) isn’t going to win you over. If you are a fan, then you’ll find a lot to like here. In the end though, what we get is pretty much more of the same. A lot of the charm that worked in Kung Fu Panda (2008) and in Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) is still here. And yet, like all franchises that try to capitalize on previous success, we have another sequel that feels watered down, pushed out as a means to remind us “Hey, remember how fun and new this all was the first time we did it?”
It’s not that this newest film is bad. Directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh Nelson have headed a production that is lively and fun. All of the familiar characters we remember have come back: Po (Jack Black), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Viper (Lucy Liu) are here. Some notable voice talents have been added, including but not limited to Bryan Cranston, Kate Hudson, and J.K. Simmons. But does the new names equal a good movie? The results are mixed.
There are two parallel plot threads. The first involves the panda/Dragon Warrior, Po. As we learned at the end of the previous entry, Po is not the last panda in existence, there happens to be an entire population of pandas living in isolation atop a high mountain. Po learns of this when his biological father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) travels to find Po and bring him back to his family. This development causes tension with Po’s adopted father Mr. Ping (James Hong) who fears that Li Shan will take Po away from him. The dynamic between Po, Li Shan, and Mr. Ping makes for the strongest story arc, and acts as a light allegory on modern day family construction. How many animated movies deals with a child who has two fathers? That’s pretty progressive stuff.
The secondary plot has less resonance. Kai (Simmons) a powerful warrior who was once comrades with the turtle master Oogway (Randal Duk Kim) found a loophole to escape the spirit realm. Obsessed for rule, Kai has the ability to steal and incorporate the power of his enemies, making him all the more unstoppable. His ultimate mission: find the Dragon Warrior and take his power, finally becoming the greatest warrior in the world. Will Po and his friends find the inner strength to defeat Kai? Will Li Shan and Mr. Ping decide on joint custody of Po? Do pandas really sleep until noon? Oh, the questions!
Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger’s screenplay streamlines the plot, thinning out the overall narrative. Kai is your typical villain, without any nuance or definition to make him remotely interesting. He actually spends most of the time off screen, and is only called upon when a required action scene takes place. In fact, a lot of the supporting characters are absent through large stretches. Tigris, Shifu, Monkey, Mantis, and Viper are pushed so far to the side it’s as though the writing forgot that they’re supposed to be stalwarts of the whole franchise. Their roles are relegated to just above cameo level.
The meat of the story involves Po, Li Shan, and Mr. Ping. This would have made for a solid family-oriented tale, as the two fathers work out their differences so they can both play a part in Po’s life. But whatever depth there is exists as an outer shell. Instead, the production decided to highlight the “fish out of water” theme of Po integrating into the world of pandas. He has to relearn how to be one of his kind: how to eat, how to relax, and most importantly, how to roll down a hill (because it’s so much easier than walking). In return, the pandas discover through Po all the possibilities they could achieve if they set their minds to it. This is pretty simple stuff. Ideas about accepting who you are but not letting that hinder you from being a better person – the message is filtered down to the bare essentials. In all honesty, the story would have made a good short film, but when stretched out to feature length we can sense the amount of filler that was put in.
But maybe that’s not what audiences are looking for. Perhaps a simple, good-hearted story with plenty of color, comedy, and action is all that people need. And if that’s the case, Kung Fu Panda 3 does what it needs to. The animation looks great, especially when we explore the spirit realm. The opening action scene between Kai and Oogway is fantastic aesthetically. The voice work lends to the roles and not the star names, and Jack Black again helps shape a main character that is endearing and funny. But after three adventures that basically travel a similar path, this animated world appears to have run its course.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni.