When master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) announces his retirement from teaching kung fu, no one is more shocked than portly “Dragon Warrior” panda Po (Jack Black) – who also discovers that the responsibility of the instructor will be passed on to him. And after a disastrous first day at the dojo, Po realizes he must search within himself to find the courage to lead. When ferocious soldier General Kai (J.K. Simmons) returns from banishment in the spirit world to take revenge on Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) and the guardians of the Jade Palace, it’s up to Po, the Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, and David Cross), and a long lost member of Po’s family to band together to thwart this grave new threat.
The breakneck pacing is back – the screen is ablaze with flurries of neon colors and bursts of kung-fu action jumbled together in brilliant special effects extravagance. But the creativity has waned considerably, as if the filmmakers have run out of ideas for Po and crew. It’s already the third outing, so it’s understandable that many of the basic themes have been exhausted, particularly when it comes to courage, sacrifice, honor, and being comfortable with (or understanding) oneself. But much of the heart, and certainly the amusement of the unlikely warrior engaging in underdog battles, has nearly disappeared, content instead with onslaughts of verbal jokes and visual gags to gloss over the thinness in plot. Plus, magic is used more often than not to provide solutions for unsolvable (or deadly) predicaments.
There’s very little time allotted for catching up with the characters; “Kung Fu Panda 3” definitely assumes that audiences are familiar with the former chapters. Beginning immediately with the spirit realm, a chi-collecting maniac, and the soul of dead master Oogway, it’s evident that origins are of nominal use – and that gravity-defying wireworks choreography appears better suited to animation, even when the technique is intended to mimic live-action pictures. New roles are added every few minutes, stuffing the production with so many parts that supporting players like Liu’s Viper and Chan’s Monkey receive approximately 2-3 lines in the entire film. Fortunately, the addition of pseudo-love-interest Mei Mei (Kate Hudson) and comedy relief background pandas generate a hint of fresh humor.
Visually, everything continues to advance in sharpness and movement and flashiness. Props, environments, and costumes look more realistic than ever. And augmenting this are momentary shifts in animation style, which are quickly becoming the norm in animated features. Subplots or backstories take on a two-dimensional look or colors morph into flat silhouettes to break up the supposed monotony of cartoony characters inhabiting stunningly realistic settings. But it’s just another unnecessary device used to mask the lack of newness in Po’s latest adventure. Rather than learning profound lessons in inner peace or balancing the forces of chi, Po seems to do a lot of frolicking in his Chinese village – before engaging in merriment in the panda retreat and lightheartedly cavorting with unexplained magic to thwart the advances of the deathly serious Kai.