A movie entitled Kung Fu Panda really had no business being any good. Just as Po defied all expectations, though, the 2008 animated feature turned out to be a pleasant surprise with a strong balance of action, comedy, and culture. Kung Fu Panda 2 was arguably an even better outing, continuing the story and incorporating some heavy drama. Kung Fu Panda 3 doesn’t quite exceed its predecessors, but it does keep the ball rolling and bring our hero’s journey full circle.
Jack Black returns as the likable panda who’s come so far, but still has much left to learn about Kung Fu and himself. Po is opened up to his own lineage upon being reunited by his long-lost dad, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston). The arrival of Po’s biological father doesn’t sit well with his fine-feathered adopted father, Mr. Ping (James Hong). Greater problems lie on the horizon, however, as a dastardly villain known as Kai (J.K. Simmons) has escaped from the spirit realm. In order to send him back, Po must master the technique of Chi. Li Shan claims Po can learn all about Chi at a secret panda sanctuary. Thus, Po sets out to discover what it means to be the Dragon Warrior, what it means to be a teacher, and what it means to be a panda.
As with the previous two films, the highlight of Kung Fu Panda 3 is its stunning animation. The computer-generated imagery here is as vivid as ever, but what’s just as impressive is the occasional use of hand-drawn effects. Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni pack their film with beautiful landscapes, as well as ingenious choreography that’s exciting, inventive, and humorous all at once. While the written dialog isn’t up there with something like Inside Out, there’s still a lot to smile at if you’re a fan of quality slapstick.
At the same time, Kung Fu Panda 3 isn’t just nonstop action. There’s a meaningful moral here too about family and being true to oneself. While these life lessons aren’t anything new, the filmmakers present them in a fresh light with a fair deal of quiet, atmospheric moments. You wouldn’t expect a ton of wisdom or artistry to come out of animated film such as this. Yet, Kung Fu Panda 3 proves once again that there’s more to this series that meets the eye.
Where Po continues to delight, the film’s greatest weakness lies in its supporting cast. Returning players like Tigress (Angelina Jolie) and Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) aren’t given that much to do this time around. A few new characters, such as Kate Hudson as a panda gifted in ribbon dancing, are never really developed either. Even J.K. Simmons’ Kai is a bit of a bore compared to Gary Oldman’s Lord Shen or Ian McShane’s Tai Lung.
Then again, none of those characters are the focus of the movie. It’s clear the filmmakers wanted to tell a compelling story about fathers and sons with this third installment. This is where the character development shines through with Black, Cranston, and Hong all providing effective voiceover work. Kung Fu Panda 3 ultimately leaves Po on a high note that wraps his story up in a fitting fashion. Of course if DreamWorks does go for Kung Fu Panda 4, it would be more welcomed than Norm of the North 2.