KUNG FU PANDA 3 (2016) review
written by: Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger
produced by: Melissa Cobb
directed by: Jennifer Yu Nelson and Alessandro Carloni
rated: PG (for martial arts action and some mild rude humor)
runtime: 95 min.
U.S. release date: January 29, 2016
2011’s “Kung Fu Panda 2” was the rare sequel that surpassed the previous animated feature in just about every way. There was a better story, the animation was kicked up another notch and Gary Oldman voiced a killer peacock. It actually had me looking forward to more adventures with the titular hero – that is, until I learned that DreamWorks Animation and 20th Century Fox (so long, Paramount) would be dropping “Kung Fu Panda 3” in January, where animated features go to die. I didn’t want to believe that the studios knew they had a dud on their hands and wanted to just release a movie that traditionally thrives in the summer, at the beginning of the year – but, it wasn’t looking good.
Well, fans of the series can discard their apprehension for this second sequel. My assumptions were understandable (we need only look to this month’s other anthropomorphic option, “Norm of the North”), but “Kung Fu Panda 3” is yet another fun, funny and exciting chapter in this saga, thanks to the return of co-director Jennifer Yu Nelson, who helmed the last entry and served as a storyboard artist on the first movie. With Yu Nelson co-directing with Alessandro Carloni and the return of screenwriters, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (both of whom wrote the last two movies), “Kung Fu Panda 3” is in good hands.
Things are about to change for our favorite dumpling-eating, action figure-playing panda. Po (Jack Black) has been riding a wave of popularity in his community after his many victories battling villainy with his cohorts the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) – but now it’s time for him to become the teacher. Po is baffled by this notion, but Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) insists he’s ready to take on new responsibilities that will break down any barriers that prevent his student from ascending to his rightful place as the Dragon Warrior. Shifu aims to teach Po the art of mastering the mystical ways of chi and hopes for some peace and quiet as well.
As if suddenly becoming the teacher to his more-than-capable friends wasn’t stressful enough, Po is visited by his long-lost father. No, not his adoptive father goose, Ping (the wonderful James Hong), but his biological father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) – the one he didn’t know he had. He drops in unannounced and informs Po he’s from a secret panda society hidden in the nearby mountains (you may recall we caught a glimpse of this idyllic locale at the end of the last movie) – but why has he suddenly shown up now?
Well, apparently the universe warned Po’s dad of a looming threat to his son and has come to take Po back to his hidden village in order to protect him. There he meets a plethora of panda families, rolling around and thriving in panda ways foreign to Po, offering him a chance to finally connect with his roots. He also meets the forward Mei Mei (an amusing Kate Hudson, who thankfully replaced the overused Rebel Wilson) here, a ribbon-dancing female panda who becomes somewhat obsessed with Po. The aforementioned threat comes from the spiritual realm, in the form of a formidable angry bull named Kai (J.K. Simmons), a former friend of Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) who plans on ruling China by stealing the chi of powerful warriors. Now he’s after the would-be Dragon Warrior of the mortal plane and to defeat Kai and his supernatural jade warriors, Po must quickly learn how to tap into his chi or the fate of all he holds dear is doomed.
It would be extremely hard for “Kung Fu Panda 3” to top its previous movie, but I appreciate that it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to – it just feels like it’s happy to be back. There’s an obvious joy and excitement in the animation, from character design to the creative use of split-screens and flashbacks. This series may be unfairly dismissed for being kiddie-fare – and sure, that’s the primary target audience – but there is a great deal for animation aficionados to appreciate in these movies and this sequel offers more beautifully-rendered artwork.
What I was reminded of most while watching “Kung Fu Panda 3” is how these movies contain potent emotional subplots that further develop the characters – not just the main character, but his vital supporting cast as well. There’s a sweet and relatable storyline that primarily deals with how the worrisome Ping deals with the sudden introduction of Li Shan, that taps into the often conflicting recognition and acceptance an adoptive parent has for a biological parent. It’s certainly comical at times, especially when Ping’s neurosis and stubbornness flaring, but James Hong’s voice work as Ping conveys a palpable vulnerability and tenderness, that it’s hard not to feel for his silly goose. Cranston is engaging as well, with his best moments arriving when Li Shan unloads his big reveal on Po, but Ping is the character that makes this touching subplot resonate.
As with each new movie in an animated series, there are new locations to visit and new characters to emerge. Once the panda village is introduced, the rest of the movie’s action takes place there, bringing both familiar and new characters to this panda-dominated location. Obviously the newest character is the movie’s first supernatural villain. While Simmons is great as expected, the character is definitely not as odd and interesting as Oldman’s Shen. But it is fun to see Simmon’s fuming manifest itself in a puffing and frustrated bull, who is confounded by Jack Black’s affable Po. The art and sound design of Kai’s jade army adds a cool element to the action of the film, as understandable clanging and scratching can be heard during their acrobatic fighting sequences with the Furious Five. The way in which Kai collects and employs his army is a cool concept as well, making another well thought out element from the screenwriters.
Another location that is quite breathtaking is the gravity-free spiritual realm. It’s colorful and surreal and a sight to behold in a theater. So, yes – if you were at all on the fence with whether or not to see this movie, my advice is to see it on the biggest screen possible with an optimum sound system. If you can float it, go for the 3D as well, since animation usually thrives in the third dimension and that’s no different here.
The movie’s biggest downside however is its unfortunate emphasis and reuse of Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting”. No movie needs that, especially any installment in this creative saga. Kids won’t care, but any adult with knowledge of this dated song will be – should be – cringing in their seat. One version of the song is recorded by British band The Vamps (Cee-Lo’s version in the first feature was enough) but really, any version of this annoying song is redundant and annoying. Beyond that, the score from returning veteran composer Hans Zimmer is great – it’s light and contemplative when called for and appropriately rousing and energetic during key action scenes. John Powell, who worked with Zimmer on the previous features was not involved in this one, but Zimmer is accompanied by current Chinese musicians, such as pianist Lang Lang, cellist Jian Wang and erhu player, Guo Gan. Overall, it’s another enjoyable score that complements the movie well.
“Kung Fu Panda 3” maintains the humor, sweetness and excitement of the previous two installments which is reassuring considering its release date. For fans wondering when we’d see the full potential of the Dragon Warrior, the final climatic fight scene is a satisfying payoff. As tireless and entertaining as it is, the movie actually delivers a chapter that suitably closes out the trilogy – not that we’ll see the end of Po and his friends, but it is indeed a fitting way for the series to go out.