Written By Christopher Diggins
Kung Fu Panda 3 Plot Summary:
When Po’s (Jack Black) long-lost panda father suddenly reappears, the reunited duo travel to a secret panda paradise to meet scores of hilarious new panda characters. But when the supernatural villain Kai (J.K. Simmons) begins to sweep across China defeating all the kung fu masters, Po must do the impossible-learn to train a village full of his fun-loving, clumsy brethren to become the ultimate band of Kung Fu Pandas.
Full disclosure here: I love the Kung Fu Panda movies. I’ve watched the first and second ones multiple times, and every time I find them just as funny, charming, and surprisingly touching as I always do. They’re both very simple stories, of course, but there’s something so heartfelt about them, and the first one especially has such an amazing grasp of storytelling basics that it just works. The mere fact of this being a Kung Fu Panda movie earns it a lot more credit from me than it might for the average person, so I might not be the most objective person in the world for this review. Still, even with that disclaimer, I have to say that while Kung Fu Panda 3 is certainly very charming and fun, it doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by the first two movies.
When we last saw Po, he had learned the truth about his past and achieved inner peace. Now Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tasks him with learning how to be a teacher, at the same time as his long-lost father Li (Bryan Cranston) shows up and an ancient warrior named Kai arrives from the Spirit Realm to steal the chi of China’s kung fu masters. If that sounds like a lot of moving parts, it really is. There’s a lot going on in this movie plot-wise, and it moves at quite a brisk pace to compensate, which is not always to its benefit. Still, there’s plenty of homages to classic kung fu movies in its premise, from an ancient spirit warrior to mystical chi to the mysterious hidden village of pandas, and these movies have always been at their best when their genuine love of classic kung fu is allowed to shine through.
When it comes to the humor, this might actually be the best movie of the three. The jokes are very tightly constructed, and they fly out at a rapid pace. New jokes are being set up just as fast as old set-ups are paying off, and the movie kept me smiling for pretty much its entire runtime. The addition of an entire village of pandas does a lot to add to the energy, providing Po with goofier foils as opposed to the stoic kung fu practitioners he’s usually paired up with. And Po himself is in rare form. One of the best scenes in the movie is when he shows his dad the Hall of Heroes in the Jade Palace. Both Po and Li are overjoyed at being in the presence of such historic kung fu artifacts, and they quickly end up playing around with all of them in a sequence that really capitalizes on Po’s joyous energy and the way his father’s presence heightens that aspect of his personality.
While the movie makes the most of Po’s love of kung fu, however, it doesn’t quite match his enthusiasm itself. One of the highlights of the past two movies was their surprisingly detailed and impressive fight choreography. The first movie especially featured fights with main villain Tai Lung that were as elaborate and entertaining as anything you might see from a live-action kung fu movie. There are some nice fights in this one too, but they feel more standard than anything else: fun to watch, but not particularly impressive. Even the final sequence doesn’t feel all that special compared to the previous movies. This extends to the entire visual aesthetic of the movie in general, too. There are a couple sequences towards the beginning where they blend 2D animation and CGI in an interesting new style, but it quickly switches back to the same look they’ve always used. There’s a few gorgeous, sweeping shots of the landscape, but overall they keep things tightly focused around whoever’s on screen and leave the background out. The result is a movie that looks fine, but doesn’t really bring that extra something we’ve come to expect from this series.
The biggest weakness of the movie, however, is its failure to replicate the original’s greatest strength. Kung Fu Panda succeeds because it gives everyone in the movie a motivation centered around one thing (the Dragon Scroll) and ties everything together through the singular plot thread of who gets to have it. Shifu’s relationship with Tai Lung and Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Po’s feelings of inadequacy, Tai Lung’s fierce pride, absolutely everything comes together through that one object and delivers a movie that feels totally cohesive, that ends up more than the sum of its parts. Kung Fu Panda 3 has plenty of good individual plot threads: Po’s relationship with both of his fathers, Kai’s quest for revenge on Oogway, Po’s need to figure out who he is. But there is little linking all of these threads together. Oh, there’s a big finale that features everything, of course, but thematically all of these strands are pretty much left to hang by themselves, and their resolutions are largely unrelated. Whereas Kung Fu Panda became stronger than its constituent parts by binding them all together, Kung Fu Panda 3 fails to do the same and so is never any better than any one of its parts.
If I’ve sounded pretty harsh on this movie, it’s only because I have such love for what came before it. It has plenty of problems, but overall “competent but uninspired” is probably the best way to describe Kung Fu Panda 3. There is a lot to like about the movie. It’s funny, its characters are delightful, and I certainly left the theater feeling good about it. But it’s missing that special something, that spark of inspiration that infused the previous two movies. It’s worth seeing, but I can’t help but feel like it’s time that would be better spent watching one of the first two instead.