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Review: Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

Directed by: Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh

Premise: Po (voice of Jack Black) meets his biological father (voice of Bryan Cranston) who takes him to the last remaining panda village. At the same time an ancient evil warrior (voice of J.K. Simmons) returns and threatens all of China.

What Works: Audiences for a Kung Fu Panda movie are primarily looking for a good time at the movies and this picture provides that. The third film in this series is consistent with the previous two and it has the mix of martial arts action and physical comedy that has made the Kung Fu Panda series so popular. The third film is distinguished from the previous entries in a few ways. First, the animation of Kung Fu Panda 3 is notably better. The visual texture of the characters and locations and the subtlety of the performances are first rate. This movie has some impressive and evocative visuals that are spectacular and give Pixar chase in their ambition and quality. Another of the notable aspects of Kung Fu Panda 3 is its story. At some level, the Kung Fu Panda films are a license to make tie-in products and it would be quite easy for the filmmakers to lazily reiterate the previous movies. But the filmmakers of the Kung Fu Panda series have made a deliberate effort to make each entry unique and to advance the story of their central character. Po has a character arc within each film but also across the series and the third movie does that as well as the previous films and in a few respects does it better. In Kung Fu Panda 3, Po is tasked with becoming a teacher and he discovers his family roots when his biological father tracks him down. This movie is able to redefine who Po is without it seeming contrived and over the course of this picture he comes to a new understanding about who he is. Po is required to mature as a leader and an instructor but he must also take responsibility for the lives of the people he’s been charged with protecting and go out on a limb to save them. The movie goes a step further in that regard. The villain of Kung Fu Panda 3 is supernatural and the final confrontation requires Po to not only be brave but to achieve an elevated level of consciousness. That’s pretty advanced stuff for what is at heart a family-friendly kung fu movie and it elevates the material beyond just another cartoon like the Minions movie.

What Doesn’t: For as much as Kung Fu Panda 3 develops its central character, the movie continues to do very little with his companions. Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Viper, and Crane have always had disdain for Po and their relationship is still basically the same as it was in the very first Kung Fu Panda movie. The new film doesn’t do very much with these characters and it squanders an opportunity to do something more with Tigress (voice of Angelina Jolie), whose had the prickliest relationship with Po and has a potentially interesting subplot with a young Panda cub. The filmmakers don’t seem to want to complicate Po’s underdog appeal and so his relationship with his fellow warriors is frozen through all three Kung Fu Panda movies. It’s also fair to critique Kung Fu Panda 3 for engaging in Oriental exoticism. All the movies have done this to some extent but the third installment lays it on pretty thick. The story adopts the concept of ch’i and presents it like something out of a Marvel Avengers movie. This concretizes an abstract concept for the family audience but the film also dumbs it down and distorts the idea. The movie also has a geisha character (voice of Kate Hudson) that is a stupid addition to what is otherwise a very good film.

Bottom Line: Kung Fu Panda 3 is an entertaining animated feature. Its filmmaking and storytelling are much better than they need to be and it’s an enjoyable family friendly adventure.

Episode: #581 (February 7, 2016)