Before Kung Fu Panda 3 started, we were subjected to the trailer for Dreamworks’ upcoming film Trolls, which looks like just about the worst thing humans have created. We’re talking about those 90s Troll dolls dancing to Watch Me Whip bad. It begs the question, how has this once great animation studio fallen so far down the drain? At least, it begged that question, and then the film began. From moment one, it threw me right back into the lush, visually stunning world that this franchise has created, and as the film went on it continually reminded me that there are clearly two very different teams at Dreamworks. The first one, which made movies like Home, clearly exists just to pedal pop music. However, the second one, behind films like this one and How To Train Your Dragon, are laser focused storytellers looking to push the medium of animation to places we have yet to see, both visually, and narratively.
When we meet up with Po (Jack Black) and the rest of The Furious Five, everything seems to be going pretty smoothly. They protect the valley, learn under Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), and even get a nice little fast food tie in at Mr. Ping’s (James Hong) noodle shop. That is, until Master Shifu decides that the time has come for Po to become the teacher, imploring the still somewhat clumsy warrior to access his full potential as a leader. Meanwhile, two important new figures enter the fray. Threatening the valley is, Kai (J.K. Simmons), a previously defeated bloodthirsty warrior, has escaped the spirit world with revenge on the mind and the ability to steal a martial artist’s Chi and make it his own. Meanwhile, perhaps more importantly, Li (Bryan Cranston), Po’s long lost birth father comes into the picture, wanting to take his son to the secret panda village in which he claims Po will learn the abilities he needs to defeat Kai.
What makes this film such a delight is that it taps back into the rich character development and style that made the first one so unique. That film didn’t just wear the clothes of the classic films that defined the martial arts genre, but immersed itself in the troupes and themes of those stories, giving Po a rich emotional journey. The second installment, while by no means bad, felt like more of a one off story without that same level of depth. What swings this one back into form is ultimately the relationship between Po and Li. While it seems as though every animated movie and their mother deals with some sort of parental issue, it feels completely authentic here. The broad physical moments between the two are there, but there’s also an equal amount of time devoted to giving Black and Cranston (both wonderful here) time to flesh out the bond between these two. Things only get better when you throw Mr. Ping (Po’s adopted father) into the mix, as the film does a wonderful job of paying off his initial jealously of the situation with an arc that is both touching and subtly progressive. It’s a story about Po learning that both of his fathers mean something to him in equal measure, and the film handles this journey with grace and resonance.
If there’s any detriment to the strength of this relationship, it’s that it dampens the value of the rest of the characters a bit. The Furious Five have always been background players in this franchise, but here they’re not really given much of anything to do. Not even Shifu and Po’s engaging dynamic really gets explored here, the biggest chunks of wisdom dispensed by another returning character who’s appearance I shall not spoil. J.K. Simmons’ Kai is also a bit under-cooked, never quite coming across as menacing as the film seems to believe he is. He’s more of a ticking clock than anything else, the film never really giving the audience time to understand his motivations. There’s a lot of characters vying for attention on screen at once, which can make the film feel a bit frenetic and childish than it actually is.
The broader elements of the previous two films also show up in full force. Most notably, the visuals are as gorgeous as they’ve always been, the spectacular fight sequences in particular feeling ripped right out of stylistic Asian artwork and campy martial arts film. Also, while there’s plenty of the tired childish humor that comes naturally with the concept of the fat, Jack Black panda, there’s also a lot of dry, self referential humor that really hits. There’s just line after line that is just flat out clever, even during the parts of the film that seem a bit old hat. However, the deal sealer on this film is the way it resolves itself. Bringing the events of the first film back around into this story without seeming forced, the movie masterfully crafts an ending for Po’s story that is both emotionally and visually stunning. During the final couple moments of this movie, I felt more emotion than I ever felt for Andy’s Toys, or Carl and Elle, because of just how wonderfully everything pays off. It’s one of the strongest endings I’ve ever seen in an animated film, sad only in the sense that there will likely be three more of these, as two trilogies are what were originally planned.
Kung Fu Panda 3 certainly isn’t treading any new ground, but it creates some very intriguing steps in the old ground it occupies. It’s a fast paced, funny, beautifully animated film that has a great deal more maturity than it seems to want to give itself credit for. If the sillier jokes had been lightened up on a bit, and the threat of the villain was made more legitimate, the entire film could have been just as masterful as it’s incredible ending. As it stands though, it’s a satisfying and enjoyable third chapter in what I personally hope will remain a strong trilogy. Leap off of the Jade Palace and buy a ticket, the first worthy sequel of 2016 is here.