Kung Fu Panda 3 is a well meaning piece of escapism for kids, one that shows signs of wear in the larger computer animated Kung Fu Franchise.
After saving the world from prior kung fu evildoers Tai Lung and Lord Shen, Po (Jack Black) is once again challenged to fulfill his destiny as “The Dragon Warrior” by defeating an ancient threat, Kai (J.K. Simmons), who has returned from death seeking power and vengeance. Kai has spent years honing his skills and hunting ascended masters in the spirit realm, harnessing their chi, in order to defeat his former friend, Oogway, and return to the living world. Upon his arrival, Kai continues to steal the chi of Earth’s kung fu masters in order to become the most feared warrior in China – with only Po, the Furious Five, and Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) left to stop him.
However, Kai’s return comes at an inopportune time for Po and his friends – as the Dragon Warrior reunites with his biological father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), who asks Po to leave the Valley of Peace and journey back to their family homestead (a sanctuary for pandas hidden high in the mountains). Reluctant to abandon the Furious Five to fight Kai alone, but eager to defeat the malevolent warrior, Po agrees to leave on one condition: that Li Shan and the Pandas teach Po to harness his own chi – so that he can send Kai back to the spirit realm.
Arriving eight years after the first Kung Fu Panda movie, Kung Fu Panda 3 is a well-meaning piece of escapism for kids – one that shows signs of wear in the larger computer-animated kung fu franchise. Where the first two series entries made effort to deliver a heartfelt story that could appeal to children and parents alike, Kung Fu Panda 3 sees the franchise slotting into comparatively uninspired cliches that audiences, both kids and adults, will have seen presented before (and better). This isn’t to say that Kung Fu Panda 3 is a bad movie, it contains plenty of fun moments and colorful visuals, along with a charming continuation of the franchise’s overarching message (read: “Be Yourself); still, the movie coasts on brand recognition – rather than evolution and reinvention of the characters and premise.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is, above all else, the next movie in the Kung Fu Panda brand – and every aspect of the film, especially the central challenge that Po faces, is a muted step forward (with few surprises along the way). It’s an adequate follow-up to Kung Fu Panda 2 but the latest entry does little to differentiate itself from the last in any significant way – which means, in a CG animation genre that continues to push boundaries with powerful allegorical stories, Kung Fu Panda 3 aims low by comparison.
The narrative sees Po facing a new enemy whose goal (destroy, conquer, gain power) isn’t differentiated from earlier villains, beyond superficial design choices (he’s a bull who fights with chained blades and uses the power of imprisoned kung fu masters rather than a snow leopard who wears purple pants and delivers crippling nerve strikes), leaving little room for Po to show a fresh side to his character and deliver an exciting finale or impactful takeaway message. Ultimately, the movie reinforces ideas and morals the prior two Kung Fu Panda movies already covered – delivering tried and true entertainment for younger viewers but very little for older children (or adults) to absorb once the credits roll.
Kai’s backstory, and former friendship with Oogway, digs a bit deeper than the larger Kung Fu Panda 3 storyline, as does a charming dynamic between Po’s adopted and biological fathers, but few of the series’ supporting characters are given much to do – with four-fifths of the Furious Five reduced to fleeting combat shots and, cumulatively, only a handful of dialogue lines for Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, and David Cross. Even Angelina Jolie’s Tigress is pushed to the side – almost entirely forgoing the previously entertaining juxtaposition between the hard-training kung fu warrior and Po’s bumbling antics. Instead, Kung Fu Panda 3 favors a freshman cast of pandas that are mostly one-joke caricatures – creating an overcrowded film that fails to introduce a single panda character that is more fun or more memorable than the Valley of Peace team. Kung Fu Panda 3 might provide children with more action figures to collect but there’s far less personality behind the plastic.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is playing in 2D and 3D theaters – and, like most CG animated films, there is a benefit to seeing the film in 3D. Catering to its core audience, 3D isn’t used for artistic purposes or nuanced depth of field and, instead, leans on a few pop-out moments to justify premium ticket prices. Still, 3D isn’t essential to the experience either and, considering the larger movie isn’t must-see viewing, there’s little reason for frugal moviegoers to spring for an upcharge.
In the end, Kung Fu Panda 3 is a standard franchise threequel with big shoes to fill. For some viewers, that might be enough – but in a series that has previously managed to be more than brainless fantasy for kids, offering a fresh aesthetic and lovable roster of anthropomorphic kung fu warriors, the third entry is a comparatively tepid continuation. As a result, Kung Fu Panda 3 is caught somewhere between its well-received big screen predecessors and its direct-to-DVD spinoffs (Secrets of the Masters and Legends of Awesomeness). Parents settling for a colorful adventure to distract their kids will find that Kung Fu Panda 3 is passable as in-the-moment entertainment, with good intentions, for the juice box crowd. At times, it’s a beautiful movie, filled with likable characters, as well as digestible gags, that should keep kids smiling and giggling – but, with a plethora of more ambitious animated options out there, passable might not justify the money (or time) required for a viewing.