While live-action martial arts movies are pretty rare nowadays, at least good or successful ones, Dreamworks has discovered that kids really love kung fu. Or at least they like it animated and when performed by a jolly ol’ panda. The first two “Kung Fu Panda” movies were delightful surprises, with the superior sequel adding something extra by really digging deep into Chinese culture, both narratively and visually. “Kung Fu Panda 3” continues that trend, as well as the high level of quality seen by the entire franchise.
Once envisioned as a 6-film series, this third entry feels a lot like a franchise-ender, completing Po’s (Jack Black) quest for self-enlightenment, as well as resolving one key mystery about his past. Picking up where the last film left off, Po has learned that he’s not the only panda out there in the world, and that his father is actually alive. It isn’t long before his biological pop, Li (Bryan Cranston) comes strolling into the village looking for his boy, which naturally upsets Po’s noodle-vending adoptive duck, Mr. Ping (James Hong). After bouncing bellies off one another for a while, and causing some playful ruckus in the dojo of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Li invites his son to the hidden panda village where the rest of his kind live. There he promises, Po will learn to harness his chi into a powerful force.
It’s a power Po will need as he’s about to face his most dangerous enemy yet, Kai (voiced perfectly by JK Simmons), who has cut a path of destruction through the afterlife. The film has opens with a fantastical, jaw-dropping cosmic battle between him and sage old tortoise Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) that sees them harnessing their chi in amazing displays right out of “Dragon Ball Z”. It’s worth noting the 3D is tremendous here, as it is throughout the entire film.
Kai’s probably the most one-dimensional villain the franchise has had, but it’s made up for by the threat he poses to Po and the people he loves. Capturing the “souls” of everyone he defeats and passing through into the real world, Kai scoffs at the idea of losing to the Dragon Master Po, and threatens to destroy not only him, but the entire panda village. There isn’t a lot of meat on those bones, so much of the story’s focus is on Po as he reconnects with his father and the panda lineage he never knew. In the village he finds that panda life is even more relaxed than he already is, and that his father still harbors secrets that could affect his future. But with Kai looming and already having faced Shifu and the Furious Five, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross), Po must finally learn what it means to be a teacher and not just a student.
Guided by co-directors and longtime ‘Panda’ collaborators Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, the film always stays happily light on its feet, even when the circumstances turn dire and beloved characters begin to fall. That said, it would have been nice to see a little more dramatic weight put behind the reunion of Po and his father given how tragic their separation had been. From a technical standpoint these movies are top of the line, and the way they bring real martial arts styles into vivid animated life is truly beautiful. It’s clear the amount of research the directors and Dreamworks put in to channel the many Asian influences, with the panda village a colorful interpretation of Chengdu.
“Kung Fu Panda 3” doesn’t quite raise the bar but that’s only because the first two films set such an incredibly high standard. It’s still likely to end up one of the year’s best animated features no matter what Pixar may put out, and hopefully this doesn’t spell the end of Po’s great adventures. There’s always a new lesson to be learned and a new foe for the Dragon Master to fight.