Let’s talk for a moment about Hotel Transylvania. The first movie may have had a rote and boring story, but it was redeemed by fantastic animation and overwhelming passion. There was so much potential for the world to be opened up, which Hotel Transylvania 2 squandered by sapping out the passion, making the story even more dull, and actively undoing all the character development that had happened over the first movie.
Kung Fu Panda and its sequel were like the inverse of that.
The first movie also had a dull and predictable story, made watchable by way of first-class animation and tremendous effort from the filmmakers. Then the sequel capitalized on that not only by making the animation even better, but by advancing the themes, ideas, and character arcs in a way that built on what had come before and opened up the franchise’s scope.
So here we are with Kung Fu Panda 3, which delivers on the second movie’s promise of showing us Po’s origins and his reclusive family of fellow pandas. But first, the movie has another surprise for us: Oogway, voiced once again by Randall Duk Kim!
Yes, it seems that wise old mentor Oogway is still alive after he spontaneously burst into peach blossoms midway through the first movie. In the time since, he’s been hanging out in a kind of spirit world so he can meditate and focus more on his inner peace. Unfortunately, it seems that Oogway either forgot or ceased to care that he had banished his old rival (General Kai, voiced by J.K. Simmons) to that same spirit world 500 years prior. Whoops!
What makes things worse is that Kai has figured out how to capture the chi (which is basically life force, for those who’ve never heard of it) of every other kung fu master in the spirit world. What’s more, he can use chi to summon and telepathically control jade statues of the captured kung fu masters, all with the skills of the original fighters.
So let’s pause for a moment here. In the first movie, the villain was just a kung fu expert who was supremely skilled and evil to the core. In the sequel, the villain was a kung fu expert with vast armies and top-of-the-line weaponry at his disposal. And in this movie, our villain is a kung fu expert with an army of other kung fu experts, and he grows stronger with every martial artist he encounters. Interesting progression.
Anyway, after Kai has captured Oogway’s chi and gained enough strength to escape the spirit world, he attacks Oogway’s old dojo and students. Which of course means Po (Jack Black, natch) and his friends. One thing leads to another and it turns out that Oogway first learned about chi from a hidden colony of pandas. Which means that finally — FINALLY — we’re given a reason for why Oogway inexplicably chose Po to be the Dragon Warrior, and an explanation for just what the hell the “Dragon Warrior” title is supposed to mean.
The downside? This means that Po has been prophesied to learn a new kung fu ability so he can go and defeat the bad guy. Because that’s only the third fucking time in three movies we’ve seen the exact same plot.
As fate would have it (or not, but I won’t get into that here), this is exactly the same time when Po’s birth father (Li, voiced by Bryan Cranston) has surfaced to find and retrieve his son. So now Po gets to visit his long-lost relatives, learn the ways of his native people, and learn their secrets of chi so he can face off against Kai.
On the one hand, this means that Po gets the chance to embrace who he is in a new and emotionally compelling way. He can learn all the things that pandas do out of laziness and lethargy, incorporate that knowledge in ways that are compatible with kung fu, and then teach his fellow pandas how to do the same. It’s a wonderful twist on the first movie, when Shifu (Dustin Hoffman again) had to modify his teaching style in a way that was compatible with Po’s inherent nature. Except that now, Po has gone from student to teacher in a way that shows how far he’s come over three movies. It’s also a delightful new angle on the theme of individualism, which has always been a cornerstone of the franchise.
On the other hand, there’s the fact that Po is now surrounded by pandas who are just like him. Which means everything that makes Po annoying and useless — his awkward rambling dialogue, his clumsiness, his cluelessness, the never-ending fat jokes, etc. — are all multiplied by a factor of each and every panda that Po shares the screen with. So if you liked Po enough to sit through the first two movies, but an entire village full of Po clones is a bridge too far, here’s your chance to get off the ride.
What makes it even worse is that with only a couple of exceptions, none of the pandas are developed beyond a single cheap joke apiece. Kate freaking Hudson (stepping in for Rebel Wilson, who reportedly bowed out due to a scheduling conflict) was brought in to voice a ribbon dancer named Mei Mei, and her character went absolutely nowhere. As for Li, I’m sorry to say that his arc in this movie is woefully predictable from start to finish. Speaking of which, Po’s adoptive dad (voiced once again by the great James Hong) has grown overbearingly jealous now that Po’s found his birth dad, which means that Mr. Ping’s arc is both predictable and obnoxious.
Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, and Lucy Liu all get about as much screen time and plot relevance as they’ve had in the last two movies, and it continues to baffle me why the filmmakers secured such top-notch talents for characters who’ve barely gotten any development over three goddamn movies (Shifu and possibly Tigress excluded). And Jack Black… well, the man practically is Po, but I’m sure you knew that already.
With all of that said, the voice acting is wonderful across the board. Even if I don’t understand why such talented actors would be wasted on such worthless roles, the fact remains that they are tremendously talented actors playing characters they already know from the past two movies. As for the newcomers, Kate Hudson does a pretty good job of goofing around, even if it is abundantly obvious that the part was written for Rebel Wilson. And Bryan Cranston… really, what more do I have to say? Is there seriously anything the man can’t do?
Last but not least is the villain. Kai is presented as a character who’s a terrifying and legitimate danger, but he’s just enough of an egomaniacal blowhard to present a bit of comedy without completely undercutting the threat. Basically put, the role is so far into J.K. Simmons’ wheelhouse that of course he nails it hard.
But what really makes this movie work is also what made the last two movies work: The animation and the Hans Zimmer score. The designs are wonderful, the animation is pulsing with energy, and the whole production is overflowing with a sincere passion that meshes perfectly with Zimmer’s beautiful score. I don’t know how the filmmakers keep doing it, but this movie knows how to hit the heart strings and the funny bone in just the right way, as the last two movies did.
For better or worse, Kung Fu Panda 3 both succeeds and fails in the same way that its predecessors did. It’s every bit as fun as its predecessors, energetic and heartfelt in a way that will appeal to moviegoers of all ages. Which is why the series has to end now.
The trilogy is done, the franchise has come full circle, the formula is quickly growing stale, and Po — as explicitly stated numerous times by various characters — has reached the pinnacle of his development. It was a pleasure to see that unfold over three movies and I wouldn’t want to see it ruined by a fourth movie that continues the franchise just for the sake of it. These movies may hardly be perfect (the over-reliance on vague prophecies, the failure to balance Po’s screen time with Shifu and the Furious Five, etc.), but none of these are flaws that could be fixed by moving the franchise further.
I sincerely hope (but nevertheless doubt) that Dreamworks Animation and 20th Century Fox have the wisdom to leave well enough alone. Especially when we already have three movies that were far better than they had any right to be.