By the third movie in any kid vid franchise, you’re likely to be more The Land Before Time than Toy Story. Yet, DreamWorks’ delightful Kung Fu Panda series has only gotten better with age. Not narratively — we are still dealing with a dumbed down Shaw Brothers homage after all. There’s not much more you can do with such martial arts mythology. But thanks to the excellent voice acting, along with a production design and directorial approach that maximizes the oft-misused 3D gimmick, we wind up with another excellent installment, a true testament to the talent involved.
Our delightful little black and white bundle, Po (voiced with precision by Jack Black), is back, and this time he faces challenges both person and paranormal. Told by Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) to carry on his work with the Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Crane (David Cross) — he is then approached by his biological father (Bryan Cranston), who leads our hero to a sanctuary for other pandas. There, Dad hopes his special son will help protect his unskilled species. Once a spectral entity named Kai (J.K. Simmons) makes it know that he is intent on stealing the powers of China’s kung fu masters, Po must train the other pandas to fight.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is indeed a marvel to look at. This is CG eye candy of the highest order, delivered with energy and passion by people who actually want to entertain — not just detain — the young demographic. This is more than just a mere electronic babysitter. This film has vision, be it from the sources it’s cribbing from or the work of filmmakers Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni. Both have been with the series since the start, which means they understand this story and the individuals populating it implicitly.
Even the newer stuff works, if sometimes not as well as in parts 1 and 2. Po has an arranged marriage in this movie, and as voiced by Kate Hudson, Mei Mei is clearly meant as both pro and con for our lead. This is especially true since we just spent the last two episodes (and some of the spin-off TV series) watching out hero try and find himself. At its core, the Kung Fu Panda films are about never judging books by their cover, self-love, and always trusting in yourself and your abilities. Throwing in a girlfriend throws off such an inner journey.
Also, J.K. Simmons’ Kai is a bit ill-defined. He’s just one of those villains who happens to possess both the necessary nastiness (and the fatal flaw or two) to keep the plot percolating along. He is nemesis as narrative opportunity. One can also place a similar claim on Cranston. We love Po’s adoptive dad (voiced by the legendary Asian actor James Hong) so much that we don’t have much sympathy for this deadbeat bear. The marshmallow-like child pandas at the reserve? Cue calls from your wee ones for a plush version of same for their playroom.
Which brings up one final point. Even though it clearly is, and was designed to continue on the cash flow realities of the first two films, Kung Fu Panda 3 never feels like product… at least, not up front. Sure, we are dealing with the same old story beats with just the baddie changed. Yes, the comedy goes for more pratfalls and physicality than the cerebral and satiric. But still, like the best of the genre it’s hell-bent on mimicking, you can’t deny this movie’s inherent charms. Not every action adventure lives up to its inspiration. Thankfully, Kung Fu Panda 3 is more creative than cash grab.