Though the Shrek series was Dreamworks Animation’s most financially successful franchise, and the ongoing How to Train Your Dragon probably has the strongest fan devotion, I have always felt the Kung Fu Panda series was my favorite to come out of Dreamworks. So I’m happy to say that Kung Fu Panda 3 keeps the series undefeated in delivering good movies.
In an early scene of Kung Fu Panda 3, master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) teaches Po (Jack Black) the important elements of a dramatic entrance and a dramatic exit.
The original 2008 Kung Fu Panda was indeed a strong entrance for Po and the gang. It’s true that, much like the original How to Train Your Dragon, it was a bit formulaic (unlikely hero follows his dreams, learns to believe in himself, and saves the day), but Kung Fu Panda followed that rulebook with more personality than most (and I feel that, unlike How to Train Your Dragon, it holds up just as well with repeated viewings). It was made into something special by the fact that the film could have easily been a one-trick pony. After all, this was still in the years when the majority of Dreamworks features were sarcastic and cynical, and with a title like Kung Fu Panda, it was easy to imagine a one-joke parody being stretched for an hour and a half.
Instead, Dreamworks managed to produced an honest-to-goodness hero’s journey. So predictable though it may have been, it was undeniably charming, fun and good-natured.
The series started off on a strong note, and only got better with its sequels (another area I feel it triumphs Shrek and Dragons). Kung Fu Panda 2 added stronger narrative and character depth, and took what was simply an animated film with talking animals, and gave a sense of world-building and mythology to its world. Kung Fu Panda 3 continues this trend, and equals the series’ second installment in many ways. If Kung Fu Panda 3 serves as the last chapter in the series (which it may very well be), then it is a fittingly dramatic exit.
The story brings the series full circle, with much of its plot centered on the now-passed turtle Master Oogway, who was responsible for sending Po on his life’s journey in the first film. It turns out that centuries ago, Oogway’s dearest friend, a large yak called Kai (J.K. Simmons), discovered the power of Chi, and it gave him a lust for power that ultimately drove him mad, leading Oogway to banish his friend to the spirit realm.
Fast-forward five-hundred years, and Kai has spent his afterlife capturing the Chi of other deceased kung fu masters, in the process making himself stronger and turning the fallen masters into zombies made of jade (or, as Po comes to call them, “Jombies”). Kai has finally become powerful enough to defeat Master Oogway, and manages to steal his former friend’s Chi, giving him enough power to open a path back to the mortal world, where he plans on destroying Oogway’s legacy (which, in Kung Fu Panda lore, means kung fu itself).
Meanwhile, a curveball is thrown at Po, as Master Shifu plans on retiring as the teacher of the Furious Five, and passing the mantle down to Po, who isn’t exactly up for the task. Further complications arise when Po’s biological father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) finds his long-lost son and invites him to come to a secret panda village. This causes tension with Po’s adoptive (goose) father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), but the pandas may just hold the secret to Chi and in defeating Kai.
Like its predecessors, Kung Fu Panda 3 is simply a lot of fun. Po is as likable as ever, Kai continues the series’ tradition of badass villains (he’s also the funniest antagonist, due in no small part to J.K. Simmons’ vocals), and the action scenes are some of the best in recent years, another trend for the series.
If Kung Fu Panda 3 has any real drawbacks, they are the same ones that have always been present in series. Namely, the Furious Five – Tigress, Monkey, Crane, Mantis and Viper (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Seth Rogen and Lucy Liu, respectively) – still don’t seem like important enough characters. They’re given a star voice cast, but they’re so underutilized you wonder why they needed the names. Throughout the series, Tigress has been the only one to show any kind of development, and even then it’s not much.
The only fault that is exclusively Kung Fu Panda 3’s is that the story can feel a little sidetracked in the comedic moments. As a whole, the film is just as enjoyable as Kung Fu Panda 2, though it may not be quite as well structured, since the comedy bits can sometimes feel a bit lengthy, leading to some story elements feeling introduced and/or resolved too quickly.
This might be especially true for Kai’s backstory. Though he is given an understandable motivation of feeling betrayed by his friend, the film’s backstory for the character tells the audience how he was once a selfless figure – carrying an injured Oogway for days to find help – without giving enough reason as to why he would suddenly become hellbent on obtaining power in the first place.
With that said, these complaints are ultimately minor. As stated, Kung Fu Panda 3 is a good time through and through. The cute characters and humor will keep children entertained, while the story, beautiful animation, great voicework, and legitimately awesome fighting sequence can easily hold adult interest. Not to mention the terrific score by Hans Zimmer.
In many ways, Kung Fu Panda 3 works as a fitting final chapter for the series, but does so without feeling like a forced finale like so many others before it, leaving open the possibility for future installments. If this is the end of the series, then Kung Fu Panda has gone out on a high note, and can claim to be one of cinema’s few consistent trilogies. But if there were some kind of guarantee that the series’ quality could continue in future installments, I’m certainly not opposed to a Kung Fu Panda 4. Or at the very least a spinoff.