Following the events of the first two movies, Po and his friends live a largely peaceful life protecting the Valley of Peace. The greatest challenge that faces Po is the sudden call to become the master of their dojo training his fellow warriors in the arts of Kung Fu, which he is lousy at.
However, before this line can be followed too far, he is surprised by the sudden return of his biological father. He doesn’t have too long to digest this turn of events, however, before the real trouble reveals itself. For unbeknownst to them, a figure from long ago, formerly trapped in the spirit world, seeks revenge on Master Oogway by destroying everything he had built, and that means them, and the life they have been leading in their valley.
The Short of It:
“Kung Fu Panda 3” is a fun, lighthearted conclusion to the Kung Fu Panda trilogy. The movie benefits from exciting action, great design and music, and a well characterized villain. All the same, some of the sheen has worn thin, and the heart of the first two films has faded somewhat. Furthermore, structural problems hurt the dramatic satisfaction of the end of the story, and Po doesn’t seem to gain any real character growth aside from a serious power level-up. None of these things will hurt most kids’ experience, but for adults in the audience the silliness won’t have the deeper level to cover for it and it will be all the more grating. Despite that, they will probably have a decent time anyway. It’s a good film that, while shallow, will provide a fun time for families and fans.
The Long of It:
Kung Fu Panda is one of those series that is better than it really has a right to be, according to what typically passes for children’s movie fare. The third installment largely follows this pattern, but the seams are starting to show.
The film has some really good things going for it. The design of all the characters was strong from the first film and they still are. The voice acting also remains strong, with capable performances from pretty much everyone involved. However, the star power of the voices behind the Furious Five is a little wasted as they feel mostly absent from the film, even if it makes sense for the plot.
J.K. Simmons is a great addition to the cast through his turn as Kai, the spirit warrior villain whose plot for revenge drives the majority of the plot. Simmons always does great work, and his villain is probably the best realized character in the film. Kai’s design feels physically threatening, with cool weaponry and truly intimidating powers, and he has a lot of charisma, despite having very basic evil intentions.
Kai’s ability to be intimidating is undermined, however, by the frequent humorous undercutting that other characters exact on him, which prevents him from having the same level of gravitas or threat as previous villains, despite having the most interesting power-set and most interesting personality of all of them.
Jack Black continues to give charm to Po, who would be utterly insufferable with a less capable voice actor. Despite Black’s best efforts, however, Po is a little underwhelming in this installment. By the end of the movie it is implied through the plot that he has gained wisdom, but there is little evidence of this in how he acts. He simply becomes more powerful when it is convenient for the plot, and the finale is a bit dues ex machine in that the thing nobody knows how to do or teach can suddenly be done easily, and by almost the entire cast. Po’s eventual victory doesn’t come through his efforts or through self-realizations – it just sort of happens.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t character moments. Po’s relationship with his step-father, Mr. Ping, and newly returned biological father, Li Shan, is complicated and provides the emotional impact of the story. It is an interesting and valuable sub plot to follow, but it feels underserved and it doesn’t connect well with Kai’s part of the story until the very end, and even then it is tenuous.
The character of Li Shan is complex, but not particularly endearing due to one of the actions he takes early in the film that has long-term ramifications for the plot. Still, it’s not hard to feel for him when he describes his family and losing both his wife and his son.
The biggest problem for the movie, however, is a structural one. Due to events of the plot that I really shouldn’t spoil, we never see Po have to try and struggle to become better. He has almost no agency through the majority of the film. Things happen to him, but he does little, or is unable to do much to attempt to overcome these challenges himself.
There are some brief moments near the end of the film that feel like real character beats that help alleviate this somewhat, but the true finale has little to do with Po’s growth or efforts, and feels like it largely comes out of nowhere. It leads to a beautiful visual sequence, but little emotional payoff.
Still, despite the structural weaknesses of the film, it has a lot going for it. The music is still excellent, the fights are fun to watch, and the action is smooth. There are some nice uses of color and contrasts, and the panda designs are pretty good (The baby pandas are especially adorable).
Conclusion and Star Rating:
While Kung Fu Panda 3 isn’t an excellent movie, and fails to come within striking distance of its betters, like most Pixar stories, it still exceeds the majority of children’s films. The music, the action and most of the humor serve it well, and the characterization is good in theory even if the execution, and the plot structure don’t give it a lot to work with. It isn’t the next modern animated classic, but it’s a good time all the same. I give this film a three out of five stars, or “Good.”