Review: Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)


Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016): DreamWorks Animation/China Film Co

The road is littered with third movies that don’t live up to expectations. One of the only great lines in this summer’s X-MEN: APOCALYPSE acknowledged that “the third one is always the worst”. I think that KUNG FU PANDA 3 actually comes out slightly better than the previous instalment and is worth a watch even if it never recaptures the near-perfection of the original.

Po, the panda Dragon Warrior (Jack Black) continues his quest to accidental enlightenment. When vengeful villain Kai (JK Simmons) escapes from the spirit realm, only Po can hope to stop him, and reconnecting with his past, and his long lost father (Bryan Cranston) might just hold the key…

From a gorgeous and inventive opening featuring the surprise return of a previously departed character, Kung Fu Panda 3 proves to still have a special something in its imagery. This sense of wonder isn’t really maintained throughout, but there’s enough to keep you watching.

We get a few funny moments, like Mantis’ (Seth Rogen) exclamation of, “Ow! My claw…thingy!” and the revelation that Tigress (Angelina Jolie) “is flammable, apparently”. There are more than enough jokes in here to please young ‘uns, plus a few that will please their parents as well. The Kung Fu Panda films have always tried to straddle that divide, perhaps even more so than SHREK, and they largely succeed here.

“I like who I am” –  it’s a nice message, though it’s the same self-acceptance message that drove the plots and key character arcs in ANTZ, Shrek and the previous two Pandas. It is put slightly more poetically here as “I’m not trying to turn you into me, I’m trying to turn you into you”.

It’s a tale of two flawed fathers idealised by their wide-eyed son. Absent parents and especially estranged dads are so common in family animated fare that we could have probably gone without exploring that relationship again, but at least they change the dynamics a little with Po’s story. I love the conceit of an adoptive dad having to advise a bewildered biological pops who has come back into the picture, and this makes for James Hong’s best role in ages returning as an increasingly emotionally worn Mr Ping, Po’s goose dad. Bryan Cranston can do better as we’ve seen on multiple occasions, but he does just fine here and has good chemistry with Black.

I love the idea of the main villain throwing a tantrum because he’s been forgotten by the world. JK Simmons has a lot of fun here, and Kai is just a brute on the hunt for all the power just because, but his childish behaviour at least makes him a little more colourful than the villains who proceeded him.

There is no place for a panda with a learning disability being the butt of a joke. It’s 2016 for heaven’s sake – what kind of a message does that send to kids? They just about got away with fat jokes in this series, but there is no place for marketing a disability as something goofy and amusing. Everyone involved should know better.

You’d be justified in suggesting that the storytelling here is retroactive. It deploys retconning liberally to give us somewhere else to go, and it feels far from organic. Of course Pandas are powerful chi healers, but have forgotten this skill after generations of comfortable living. This is like learning that the hobbits secretly harbor power on the level of Gandalf’s, buried under all the second breakfasts.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is a perfectly satisfactory end to Po’s story. The characters have been on a journey, the mythology of this world has been steadily expanded and it was always beautiful to look at. Unfortunately, DreamWorks Animation have announced more chapters are on the way, because apparently they learned nothing from Shrek’s steady decline. Ah well, that’s Hollywood folks! SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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