Kung Fu Panda 3 review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Dreamworks has a bad habit of creating franchises and milking them until they’re completely dry. Shrek and Madagascar have run their course after four movies and TV specials. Kung Fu Panda is doomed to the same fate when Dreamworks set out to create about five sequels when the first film was a hit - a nasty trend they used with How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods. But before Kung Fu Panda descends into the pit of being a tiresome retread, the third film offers up one last bit of solid martial arts fun.
The pudgy warrior Po (Jack Black) is given the grand opportunity to replace Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) as the instructor of the dojo. Just like the other movies, Po is terrible at first, but will eventually succeed by applying his own knowledge and skills. To keep things interesting, however, there’s a family confrontation added into the mix. Po’s father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) is overjoyed to finally discover his son that embodies the same sense of goofing off and having fun. This comes much to the chagrin of Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping (James Hong) who finds himself distrusting and fearful of losing his son. His suspicions are not entirely unwarranted when Li Shan offers to teach Po the ways of Chi in order to lure him back home.
The villain for the picture isn’t quite as memorable - literally nobody can remember his name - but he’s still a decent foe for Po. The bull warrior Kai (J.K. Simmons) has escaped from the underworld and seeks to conquer Shifu’s students. His power is to transform the living and undead into jade soldiers of his ever-growing army. It’s certainly a cool trick, but perhaps more cool than threatening. Po doesn’t seem to take Kai all that serious because he knows the score. After two movies, he knows that he’ll save the day with his cleverness and rise up again to become the chosen one. It’s a little hard to take Kai seriously as a villain when few of the characters do. I almost felt bad for Kai in how he is constantly frustrated with his lack of fame. I mean, he did come back from the dead and wield an army of kung fu zombies. Shouldn’t that be a little terrifying?
Despite the least interesting villain of the trilogy, Kung Fu Panda still has its charms. The concern of two dads trying to do what’s best for their son makes for a great arc, especially when taking into account how much Po has changed over time. Even if Po always ends up saving the day, the noticeable progression of character is a pleasing element. Li Shan is amazed to discover that Po has become more hard-working and dedicated in that he awakes early and takes training seriously. Unfortunately, Shifu’s Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan) still don’t have much to do at all. The most we get is from the character of Tigress that forms a bit of a soft spot for children, but only as a handful of emotional tugs. Everyone else is just fodder for fight scenes.
Speaking of fight scenes, however, the fight choreography remains a constant treat of the series. The scale of martial arts is expanded as jade warriors do battle with an entire village of pandas. Po applies his trademark tactics of dispatching bad guys, relying on girth more than fists, to creative effect. Pandas roll down hills as tumbling rocks and use their mighty arms to hug their enemies into submission. It’s expected the way all these strategies are laid out beforehand, but darned if it still isn’t a pleasure to witness. There’s an especially wild sequence where Po and Kai do battle in the low-gravity environment of the spirit realm, leaping from floating rocks as they fire back at each other with Chi. Visually, it’s the most dazzling fight of the three movies.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is still an amusing bit of animated martial arts comedy even if it isn’t as strong as the previous entries. What ultimately sustains this trilogy is the general warmth of the characters. Po wants to be the ultimate warrior, but still wants to be as lovable as its pudgy protagonist. Perhaps if it can maintain this sense of heart, the series may have a longer life than most Dreamworks properties that run on into mediocrity. As it stands, the series still has the heart and artistry to be one of the most distinct and exciting animated film series out there. And how many times do you get to say that about a CGI family movie with martial arts?