Movie Review: “Kung Fu Panda 3” – All Fun and Games

Written by Matt Butler February 06, 2016

KFP3Kung Fu Panda 3 is the third installment in a series of surprising films. I never thought in all my time as a critic that I’d find myself writing the sentence “The Kung Fu Panda trilogy is a masterful work of art” without any trace of irony. But, because it’s so true, I’ll say it again: the Kung Fu Panda trilogy is a masterful work of art! I guess if there’s anything these movies can teach us, it’s to never judge a book by its cover, as even a kung fu fighting panda with the voice of Jack Black can defy the highest expectations (and yet, a twerking polar bear with the voice of Rob Schneider can’t pass even the lowest expectations. Strange world we live in, huh?).

So where does Kung Fu Panda 3 stand in this opinion? Well, like any good sequel, it builds upon the story, rather than attempting a revamp -I’ll excuse Evil Dead 2 for this because it’s Evil Dead 2– and puts our lead hero in a new but familiar conflict. Having fulfilled his destiny of becoming the Dragon Warrior and attaining inner peace, it only seems fitting that Po’s (Jack Black) next step is to go from student to teacher. This requires him to learn what it truly means to be the Dragon Warrior -aside from all the punching and kicking- and embark on a quest of self-discovery. Led by his estranged father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), Po is brought to a secret panda village where he attempts to get in touch with his roots and learn what it means to be a panda. 

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“Never under-estimate the impact of a dramatic entrance!”

I will admit, this is the weakest of the series, not in a Spider-Man 3 sense, but more a Return of the Jedi sense. Everything is cohesive, nothing radical or out of place, it just feels very… safe. That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had, but when it comes to emotional stakes, this entry doesn’t pack much of a punch. This, of course, comes as a direct comparison to Kung Fu Panda 2, which is way more dramatic than anyone could have expected (I’ll admit to tearing up). This time around, it’s mostly fun and games, and while it’s completely harmless, it’s nothing to drop your jaw over.

“Chitty-chitty-chat-chat, chat-chat-chat!”

This is also the talkiest of the trilogy, which I think hinders the potential for its visual storytelling. As an example, when Tigress (Angelina Jolie) narrowly escapes Kai, she says “I hope you’re ready Po” as a means of telling the audience what her objective is when the audience can infer that well enough on their own. This is obviously a nit-pick, as the series has proven its worth in snappy, even poignant dialogue, but it’s an example of how, sometimes, less is more, and showing trumps telling.

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The art direction remains inspired as ever, as exemplified by the opening in the Spirit Realm. It’s a welcome reminder that while Shrek has its chops in comedy, and How to Train Your Dragon in storytelling, Kung Fu Panda still takes the cake as Dreamworks’ most visually-stunning franchise. I’m a dedicated believer in the film doctrine ‘Every frame is a painting’ and with so many of Kung Fu Panda 3’s shots bursting with radiant colour and engulfed in Chinese culture, I’d gladly hang just about any of its stills on my wall.

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As is the norm with the franchise, the cast is bursting with vocal energy, and the new additions fit like puzzle pieces. Kate Hudson is especially fun in Mei-Mei’s brief moments on screen. This is an amusing character that literally demands attention and deserved more of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets her own short on the DVD. J.K. Simmons voices Kai, the bullish spirit demon (an inspired casting choice in all respects), whose character is surprisingly laid back given his legacy and abilities. While his design and choice of weapon are inspired, there’s not much to Kai that poses a compelling threat to Po, aside from his ability to manipulate Chi. Kai seems like a product of one of Po’s wish-fulfillment fantasies rather than an actual imposition. He’s a villain of supposedly indomitable strength whose role is exclusively to show the progress of our puckish village hero. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but given his supposedly brotherly connection with Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), and his years of purgatory, I think this might have called for a more twisted and deranged character. Villains like Shen and Tai Lung work well because they carry a heavy weight from their past; you knew where they were coming from. Kai is a fun character nonetheless, but he’s easily forgettable, which oddly enough, fits perfectly with his annoyance at characters consistently forgetting who he is.

“If you only do what you can do, you’ll never be better than what you are.”

But what really took me out of the film was the breakneck speed of it all. Kung Fu Panda 3 squeezes in so much comedy and action into a sequence that it becomes difficult to register what’s going on. Now, it’s not nearly as desperate as, say, Hotel Transylvania 2, but it shares that lack of comedic focus. But despite the high-octane editing, Kung Fu Panda 3 has a predominantly relaxed tone. Considering the melodrama of Kung Fu Panda 2, this entry works as a chapter of relief. Having Kai enslave the masters of kung fu rather than murder them, as done in the second, grants hope to the audience that Po will be their salvation. While this dissolves the tension and reduces the climax, it’s still, at the very least, different. Besides, when your last film deals with horrors like ethnic cleansing (I’m not kidding), maybe it calls for a sequel that’s more… laid back.

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Kung Fu Panda 3 left me wanting more, and maybe I’m foolish to expect so much from this breed of film, but then again, that expectation alone feels like the series’ greatest accomplishment. In the end, I’m forced to remind myself not to look too seriously into a film called Kung Fu Panda 3 while still remembering what an anomaly the series turned out to be. It may not hit as hard as the first two, but Kung Fu Panda 3 is undeniably fun and endearing through and through, and a fitting conclusion to a remarkable trilogy.

My Rating: 7/10tumblr_static_81ne4whyx3goc088kocks8gs8-1

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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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