In the eyes of some, DreamWorks Animation is known probably as much for not being Pixar as they are for the animated films they produce. It could be hard to be the Peyton Manning to Pixar’s Tom Brady, but DreamWorks Animation has produced a lot of financially successful features and have dipped into the franchise formula quite a bit more than Pixar (Shrek, Ice Age, Madagascar, and How To Train Your Dragon). While there may not be a film that measures up to the best of Pixar, they still produce good-to-great films almost every time out. Perhaps the most consistent in terms of quality and enjoyment is the Kung Fu Panda franchise, which is back with it’s third installment, Kung Fu Panda 3.
Having become the Dragon Warrior, Po (Jack Black) is now tasked by his master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) with taking over as teacher and trainer of his companions, the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). Overwhelmed at the prospect of instructing other instead of just protecting the realm with fists and kicks of awesomeness, Po is unsure how to lead and struggles. He soon comes face to face with his past in the form of his father, Li (Bryan Cranston), appearing in the village, causing some tension for his adopted father Mr. Ping (James Wong). Soon, though, he will have to come face to face with a supernatural being returned from the spirit realm, Master Oogway’s former brother-in-arms, Kai (J.K. Simmons). To defeat Kai, Po must figure out who he is by discovering his roots in order to truly be the Dragon Warrior.
There is a considerable amount of talent that has been added to the vocal cast here. Bryan Cranston, J.K. Simmons, and Kate Hudson (who voices Mei Mei, a female panda who is a ribbon dancer) are added to the already sizeable cast. Much of the original cast is sidelined for large chunks of the time. In fact, I actually found myself thinking that Chan, Liu, Rogen, and Cross probably could have done most of their vocal work in a day. Given what the arc of the story is, this is mostly understandable though, as it focuses on Po and his father and getting in touch with his roots. And it also focuses on the new villainous threat in the form of Kai.
Kai traps most of the supporting characters by capturing their chi. This accumulation of chi has allowed him to escape from the spirit realm where he has existed for 500 years. Amusingly, because it’s been so long, no one knows who he is when he proclaims his return. Possessing the chi of other kung fu masters allows Kai to make them into jade, zombified versions of the masters (“Jambies!” as Po proclaims) that he controls.
The only thing capable of stopping Kai is someone with an equal understanding of the power of chi, which to no ones surprises is the Dragon Warrior, Po, because apparently the pandas and their secret society were chi masters. Thus, Po’s journey becomes one of discovering the power of chi as well as reconnecting with his people, er… pandas. This is a slight knock on the film as it turns into another case of Po discovering his inner power, a theme that has now run through all three of the Kung Fu Panda movies, making it a bit redundant. There are also some basic narrative leaps that are glazed over, like how Tigress is able to find the secret, hidden panda village on her own when she has to get a message to Po later on in the movie.
Despite the repetitive/recycled/repurposed theme and some narrative short cuts, the movie is still an enjoyable and entertaining movie. This is mainly because of the sheer strength of personality of Jack Black and the way that Po revels in the sheer awesomeness of everything he gets to do. This trilogy (and possibly beyond in the future) rides on the backbone of Po essentially being a fanboy who gets to experience the things that he grew up being a fan of. It’s fan-fic fulfillment as a kind of art form. The constant self-awareness of Po in everything he is doing just works.
The new addition of Li and the panda village is well done. Particularly his difficulty in assimilating himself to how they live after growing up apart from them. There’s also the initial awkwardness and tension between Po’s adoptive father and his biological father that the film explores that actually ends up in a pretty sweet place.
Some people say that an action movie is only as good as the villain of the story, and so far this franchise has done well in creating compelling and effective villains. Kai is a giant, muscular yak with swords on chains that evokes Kratos in the God of War video games. His command of the jambies and the spiritual nature of his character set him apart in a unique way from the previous bad guys of the earlier films who were mostly (but effectively) brawn and menace. It’s a nice touch and probably not a coincidence that he desires to possess the chi of others and that his eyes and weapons glow jade, like he is green with envy (something Shakespeare called “the green sickness”).
Visually, the film is great. It was clearly made with 3D in mind, but seeing it in 2D certainly does not detract. The visuals are eye-popping and all of the action looks great. The co-directors, Jennifer Yuh and Alessandro Carloni, wisely stage significant action in the spirit realm, really allowing the film’s action to flourish as the physics of the normal world do not apply there.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is a little light on storyline that feels a little recycled, but it is still very fun and entertaining and still has more than enough going for it to make it recommendable to people of all ages. Kids will obviously love it and parents can enjoy it as well. Surprisingly, it’s been five years since Kung Fu Panda 2 came out. I don’t know if this is the last one in the franchise, but I have heard there could be upwards of six. Of all of the DreamWorks Animation franchises, this one still feels the best and most enjoyable.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars