One of the things that made Kung Fu Panda 2 such a great film was the mystery at it’s center about Po’s family. Him finding out being the only panda left alive gave it an emotional core that helped elevate the incredible action sequences. In the end it was revealed that not only was his father still alive, but there was a thriving population of pandas in a secret village. That put Kung Fu Panda 3 in my list of my most anticipated films of whatever year it would be released.
Perhaps such high anticipation was a mistake since I just ended up being disappointed.
The Film opens with a beautiful scene set in the spirit realm where Master Oogway’s (Randal Duk Kim) meditation is interrupted by Kai (J.K. Simmons), a former colleague he had to send to this realm after attempting to become powerful by stealing the chi of the Kung Fu masters. 500 years had passed since that brawl, and Kai hasn’t stood by idly. Instead he stole the chi of every master who has entered the spirit realm. He steals Oogway’s in order to return to the mortal world in order to take over it, but before he does, he is warned that there is someone up there who will end him once and for all.
This is of course Po (Jack Black, still his best performance), who is still the Dragon Warrior and having the time of his life. That is until Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) reveals that it is now his responsibly to teach the Furious Five as he is retiring in order to teach himself to use chi for good. This of course doesn’t go well.
Then Li (Bryan Cranston), Po’s biological dad, enters the picture. Things along swimmingly until Kai’s minions attack and we learn that only a chi master can stop him. It turns out that pandas are historically great at this whole chi thing, so Li suggests that Po comes with him to his village to train. So, they set off, but will our hero master this tough aspect of martial arts before Kung Fu is destroyed?
Well, we already know the answer, but the fact that there is no sense of danger, no urgency made it a letdown. The mystery of the pandas is quickly solved, everyone just accepts the mystery and the story moves on to become and average “I will never lose you again” narrative that doesn’t impact emotionally as much as it should. It doesn’t help that the few pandas that are given a personality and just cookie cutter characters, one of them being a Rebel Wilson-type that was obviously written for and originally voiced by her, but at the last minute they dropped her and was replaced by Kate Hudson
The villain’s narrative is particularly disappointing. In the original film Tai Lung was a menace feared by the entire world and his narrative fit because he was to become the Dragon Warrior before he went bad. In the second one Shen was so hell-bent on world domination that he caused panda genocide. The thing with Kai is that no one remembers him and all he wants is to get the chi of every Kung Fu master. Simmons tries and tries to make the character menacing, but he’s a failure from the get-go.
Also, compared to the second film, it feels childish. I read a review that said that this is the Series’s Return of the Jedi, and it is very true. Could it have something to do with the fact that this was a Chinese co-production from the very beginning?
With that said, it’s still a fine movie. From a narrative level it still works because the moral of being the best version of you that you can possibly be is as resonant as ever. Also, the conflict of Po having two fathers and the way Mr. Ping (James Hong) handles that is lovely and it gives the film a much needed emotional hook.
The best thing about it, and what perhaps will make it one of the best achievements of 2016 is the animation. It is downright spectacular. In a number of scenes they combine 2D style animation in the backgrounds and sometimes it mixes in with the characters and the result is jaw-dropping. And as always, the film is a great achievement in character and production design. Also, the fights sequences, although not as complex or rhythmic as in the previous film, are still some of the best that we’ve seen in major films in a long time.
The film ends on a nice note that caps Po’s journey. With the recent acquisition of Dreamworks Animation by Comcast and their announcement that they plan to expand the franchises, I hope that they don’t ruin this ending and decide to focus on other aspects of the Kung Fu Panda world. Maybe make a film about Tigress? There’s a lot of unexplored potential there.