I’ve always gotten a good feeling from the Kung Fu Panda films, the first one being better than the second. But KUNG FU PANDA 3 might be my new personal favorite, thanks in large part to the filmmakers not being afraid to change things up a little bit, both in terms of the story and the animation style in certain sequences. Depending on the environment or what dimension the characters are occupying, co-directors Alessandro Carloni (a long-time animator, first-time feature director) and Jennifer Yuh (who previously co-directed KUNG FU PANDA 2) completely alter the visual landscape and animation techniques for a couple of flashbacks and scenes that are meant to take place in something resembling a spirit world, from which springs a great new villain, Kai (last year’s Oscar winner J.K. Simmons).
With abilities born of the supernatural, Kai escapes this other dimension and arrives in China looking for the creature (namely the Jack Black-voiced panda Po) who he has been told will be his only true challenge in his quest to acquire the souls, or chi, of all kung fu masters. But before he makes it to Po, another visitor makes his way to where Po has just been made a teacher by his master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Po is terrible at being an instructor to his friends, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), and the one with all the best lines, Seth Rogen’s Mantis.
One night, into Po’s life wanders a panda named Li (Bryan Cranston), the first panda, in fact, that Po has ever seen. Li brings with him a story about losing his son, whom he’s fairly convinced is Po. Li spins tales of a wonderful panda village, and Po is desperate to see how other pandas live, which is exactly what he does despite breaking the heart of his adoptive father, Mr. Ping (James Hong). With Po promising to come back, he and Li head out to the panda village where Po meets the likes of “famed” dancer (in the panda community) Mei Mei (Kate Hudson).
KUNG FU PANDA 3 continues with strong messages about having faith and confidence in oneself, and not to get too hung up on body shaming. With the other pandas, Po doesn’t look as heavy or clumsy. The other pandas have turned these shortcomings into a way of life. Why run down a steep hill, when you can roll down it, for example. There are also old stories that claim that the pandas in the village are gifted kung fu masters who hold the key to defeating Kai. What I kept expecting was for the other shoe to drop regarding all the other pandas (which happens to a degree but not enough to distract us from the thoroughly enjoyable main plot), that maybe they weren’t all good or trustworthy, but that doesn’t happen; it doesn’t need to.
Po finally decides to head back to Shifu and seek his advice about becoming the Dragon Warrior, the greatest kung fu master of them all, but by the time he gets near, all of his Furious Five friends/students’ souls have been taken by Kai. And so Po must fight his own friends, possessed by Kai, wanting to eliminate his only true rival. I realize now that this story sounds a bit heavy, but the truth is, the serious and more death-defying moments of Kung Fu Panda 3 are balanced out by the expected brand of humor, especially from Black and Rogen.
It’s nice to see all of the familiar characters return, even if many of them have little relevance in this chapter of the franchise, but I was far more interested in the new ones. Simmons is particularly good using a deeper, almost unrecognizable voice here that really underscores just how nasty a beast Kai is. On the other hand, Cranston is about as affable and adorable as his son—certainly more “Malcolm’s Dad Hal” than “Walter White.” What I wasn’t expecting from the father-son reunion aspect of the film was how deeply Li regrets the time lost and how desperately he wants to make up for what was lost. Cranston’s acting chops make Li something more than a cuddly ball of energy; there’s a sprinkling of guilt in there as well.
Not surprisingly, the final battle between Po and Kai takes place in the visually experimental Spirit World, where gravity and physics are flexible. It’s a stunning sequence that casts real danger onto Po’s amateur status as a Dragon Warrior, thanks to Kai being able to use Po’s friends’ abilities against him. KUNG FU PANDA 3 plays a few things by the numbers, but I like the emphasis on ancient Chinese culture, art and skills as a backdrop for this story, even if there are maybe a few too many jokes about how much Po eats or doesn’t eat, depending on who you ask. I’m sure there will more of these films, and despite how much I really did enjoy this one, I think three wraps these adventures up nicely. Rather than keep making them until the quality begins to slip below some invisible line, end things on a high note. Imagine that.