In a world where Chinese animals speak perfect English, a group of celebrity kungfu masters will ignore the food chain and band together to defend their valley against mystical evil. Like house guests, laundry, and teen pop idols, movie franchises get notoriously worse the longer you keep them around. Fortunately, the Kung Fu Panda movies are surprising exceptions.
The story picks up some time after the events of the second movie with Po, the dragon warrior / ultra fanboy, and his reluctant team of animal friends carrying on the legacy of the soon-to-retire Master Shifu, a red panda. All this is put on hold when Po’s long lost father stumbles into the valley and the two venture off to help Po rediscover his panda ways of being fat and happy. Meanwhile, in the spirit realm, the forgotten evil and avid jade collector, Kai, begins his ascension to confront Po in hoof-to-paw combat. Now the valley is once again under attack and Po must shape up a village of sleeping pandas against a guy who literally fought his way to life.
Right off the bat, it’s still amazing to me how Po has managed to slapstick his way through every fight – clumsily happening to sit on or fall into his enemies by accident. He’s been this way for the last two movies, and hasn’t changed in the third. But now, Po has to step up to the task of becoming the temple’s new teacher, a role he doesn’t see himself fitting very well. The direction of the film is surprisingly fresh, taking our characters through the trials of teaching instead of being taught.
The animation is top notch, combining beautiful textures with graceful effects to create vivid depictions of some of the more mystical aspects of the movie that seem borderline “trippy”. Their all-star voice cast is back and bigger with J.K Simmons as the new villain and Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad as Po’s father. This, combined with the fact that actors like Kate Hudson play side characters, makes it pretty clear Dreamworks splurged on the budget.
However, one thing money can’t buy is good writing. The return of Po’s long-lost father comes with an element previously unbeknownst to the franchise: parenthood. Keeping in mind the movie’s target audience, the third instalment introduces ambitious themes of culture shock, family relations, and insecurities that flesh out the characters in a way that even some adults would enjoy.
Speaking of things adults enjoy, comedy can be the make or break of a parent’s experience at a kids’ movie. While most of Kung Fu Panda 3’s humor derives from serious people talking about non-serious things, its humor isn’t complex and is what snobby adult reviewers would call “charming”. The quirky dialogue and quippy cast will captivate the younger audience while the older audience zones out and think about adult things like taxes and the nutritional value of popcorn.
All in all, this is a kids movie and the plot, while well done, has been done before. However, it has exceeded its predecessors in production value and content quality, giving new life to its franchise. Is it the last Kung Fu Panda movie? No way. These guys are going to milk the sequels until the spin-offs have their own spin-offs. That doesn’t mean it isn’t still the greatest kung fu movie about a fat panda I’ve ever seen. If that doesn’t suit your fancy, get out there and enjoy another animated movie about talking animals and go see Zootopia.