I normally don’t see the point of animated sequels, either because the world that the original film created wasn’t interesting enough to revisit, or because the story simply doesn’t need continuation. Kung Fu Panda 3 is one of the clearest exceptions, in that it follows through on what we were promised at the end of Kung Fu Panda 2: we get to know the whereabouts of Po’s real family.
A lot of praise has been directed towards Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda series and even though I’m not sure if I enjoyed it as much as others, I can see its charm. Jack Black plays a character that he was clearly made for, the visuals are top-quality and the physical comedy is fast and well-animated, with equally well-made serious moments here and there to even things out. So how does the third film fare?
Well, for starters, its prologue is grippingly mystifying. We see Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), the powerful grand master tortoise who died in the first film, in the spirit world, where his soul is captured by a fearsome spirit warrior named Kai (J.K. Simmons), whose next target is implicitly the Dragon Warrior. The Dragon Warrior, of course, is Po the panda, whom we then see train as per usual with the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Mantis (Seth Rogen). One problem I’ve always had with these films is that the Furious Five, sans Tigress, aren’t especially well-developed characters, and this installment does little to redeem it.
Their kung-fu master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) announces that he will no longer be teaching them and that this task is now bestowed upon Po, which goes as well as you’d foresee. Something I like is that, although they’re formulaic, each new film gives Po bigger and bigger things to accomplish the more powerful he gets, with his (mostly) endearing clumsiness remaining an obstacle throughout. It’s not so much about learning how to teach, though, as it is about mastering Chi.
As Po sits at home one day, lamenting his incompetence, he meets Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), his long-lost father who comes from a secret village of pandas, where the power of Chi is rampant. Po sees this as an oppurtunity to quickly learn how to master it and stand a chance at defeating Kai. As the two of them travel to the village, they’re joined by Po’s jealous adoptive father Ping (James Hong), who gets the most character development out of any of the side players this time around. If you thought all the fatty humor surrounding Po got tiring enough as it is, wait ’til you get a load of an entire village of him.
It isn’t entirely boring, maybe, and some of the new panda characters get a laugh, although most of the jokes surrounding them rely on pretty basic food/fat humor and it’s not exactly new. What was more interesting was to see Po’s reaction to it all; feeling at home at first, but slowly realizing that this little panda society might be a bit too gluttonous and lazy even for him.
Another problem is the film’s antagonist, who doesn’t have many interesting things going for him. There is even a running joke that none of the characters remember or know about him, almost as if it was intentional to make an immemorable villain. J.K. Simmons gave him something a little extra, obviously, but I won’t be remembering this bad guy for long, I’m guessing.
It’s hard for me to be entirely invested in a film if the main threat is barely anything of the sort, but there’s enough good stuff in Kung Fu Panda 3 to keep you entertained. Those who will love it most are the kids, I’m sure, although it’s hard as a grown-up not to appreciate its artistry and style. Would I have liked it more if the characters were as three-dimensional as the imagery and the jokes were smart in the same way Trump supporters are not? Maybe so. But if you need something to show your kids, this isn’t a bad option, even though it’s no doubt gonna be overshadowed like crazy by Zootopia and, later this year, Finding Dory. I think it’s safe from Ice Age 5.