As far as franchises go these days, the ‘Kung fu Panda’ series strikes me as some sort of strange anomaly in the sense that it seems to be the only series out there that realizes it’s a series. It understands that it is an ongoing story that is meant to evolve and mature over the course of time, and that simply doing the same thing over and over again will not do. Not that “Kung fu Panda 3” doesn’t have some familiar elements (even the best franchises have those), as there is plenty of fighting, comical dialog, and new techniques about achieving “inner peace” to be found. What is amazing is that every time a new installment comes out the story seems to actually advance and the characters grow up. Not only that, but thanks to some clever nods in the screenplay each new movie manages to make the previous films more enjoyable because new information helps you understand the old stuff better.
In this film Po (Jack Black) is pretty comfortable in his role as the Dragon Warrior and has become like a local mascot for his Chinese village. He gets a shakeup in his status when Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells him that he is to now be a teacher, something that doesn’t end with great results. That’s okay though, because as Shifu says “if you do not attempt what you cannot do, you will never understand what you can do.” Words of wisdom that only a DreamWorks movie can bring to the table. After two films where Po fights evil enemies and learns about the loss his family, he final gets a break when his real dad Li (Bryan Cranston) comes into the picture. Po is thrilled at being able to learn who his family is, but there is little time to celebrate as an old enemy from the past named Kai (J.K. Simmons) comes into the picture to capture the life-force of all the martial arts masters (or “chi” as it’s more commonly known).
This means it’s time to go home with good old dad to learn more about his past, train in the Art of Chi, and learn how to eat more than one dumpling at a time. If you’ve seen the previous two films, you can see that this isn’t very much like the other two (outside of the whole save the world thing that tends to be a nuisance every time). The first film was about discovering greatness in yourself. The second film was about discovering Po’s past. This third film is about getting to know Po’s family and preparing for the future. It’s a natural progression that is smooth and natural, and it goes to show that many kids franchises just aren’t doing things right anymore. What’s the point of seeing a sequel if there isn’t anything to add to the story? “Kung fu Panda 3” shows just how good sequels are when there is a reason to go back to the well.
It’s not perfect by any means…in fact, for all the praise I have given it, this is probably the weakest installment of the bunch. The kung fu sequences are excellently choreographed and once again take full advantage of the 3D animation, but they appear more often than I would have preferred them to. For that matter, the movie is so much about characters, that when the villain of the film shows up early on he seems more like an intrusion to the main plot rather than a natural extension of it. I know this is a movie that has largely been sold on its action, but I wonder if it would have been too much to ask if maybe – just maybe – we could have skipped the villain altogether this time. He’s not particularly memorable and only adds a subplot of Po having to gain a new fighting technique to beat him.
The previous film was solely directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, but here she shares the director’s chair with newcomer Alessandro Carloni. I can see Yuh’s fingerprints all over the scenes she directed, and they are far and away better than anything Carloni directs. If there is a “Kung fu Panda 4” (and I hope there is) I believe they should let Yuh direct the film solo again, as I believe she has a vision for this series that gets compromised when you bring a second vision into the mix. I also believe it would be better if the next time we go through this Po should really get to know his family rather than just meet them. So far most of the pandas are one joke extras, and I think there could be more to them if given the chance.
The series should also keep up with its brilliant casting. It’s funny to think that Jack Black can be taken so seriously in a movie where he plays a cartoon panda, but for all his faults as an actor he is just so darn good as Po. I really can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have playing this character. This is still Dustin Hoffman’s best part in years (sad, I know), and Angelina Jolie continues to bring a vulnerability to the butt-kicking Tigress. New additions to the cast include Bryan Cranston as Po’s lost father and J.K. Simmons as the villain. For whatever problems these characters may have, there is no doubt the acting is excellent. Most of all, this series should never forget that the thing this franchise as over most other family movies out there are great characters and deep stories. I still laugh at the title because this has proven time and time again to be a “don’t judge the book for its title” franchise.
It’s scary to think that we almost didn’t get this because the previous film got its butt whooped at the box office by “The Hangover Part II” of all thing! Thankfully China was far more embracing of the film, and this time around they actually have helped to fund and animate the thing, so there is more of an oriental feeling this time around. While this new installment leans a little too much on a weak villain and cheap one liners, it does progress the series in a way that is natural and feels true to the spirit of the series, and even some older characters get brought back into the mix without it feeling forced. If this is the end of Po’s journey it’s certainly a good way to go…but I sense there is more to this that can be told, and I feel it should be told. For instance, I want to know why of all the action figures Po could bring with him, the only one he takes his journey is Tigress. Is there something going on there we don’t know about?