After a fairly lengthy wait, especially considering today’s handling of sequel schedules, Po and the Furious Five are back for more Kung Fu Panda fun. This third entry in DreamWorks Animation’s solid martial arts action-comedy franchise does not quite reach the great heights of the prior two installments, but that doesn’t mean this film is bad at all. There is a ton of fun to take in with Kung Fu Panda 3 and it comes with great action, big laughs and plenty of heart.
Following the origins of the Dragon Master seen in the first film and the quest for inner peace in the second, Kung Fu Panda heads to supernatural territory and the discovery of one’s true self. A dual narrative forms, as Po (voiced by Jack Black) meets his long-lost father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), while the evil Kai (J.K. Simmons) returns from the afterlife to snatch up the chi energy of all the masters. Kai’s return leads to Po traveling to the secret sanctuary of pandas, where he can hopefully learn the secrets to unlocking one’s chi, the only way to stop Kai.
The clear reason these Kung Fu Panda films have worked is the dedication to character and story. The first film felt like a good break from all the pop culture joke machines coming out of DreamWorks Animation, and the studio has had a better balance since. This third film continues in that vein, as the jokes all come from the characters and situations, with added stakes as usual, once the action kicks into gear. It may seem obvious, but this series has done such a fine job at establishing a world and characters that this third film’s biggest flaw is that it’s merely more of a great thing.
There is certainly a lot to enjoy here. Black’s Po continues to be a joy to watch because of his genuine love of being involved with the thing he adores most – kung fu. The way he geeks out over how his opponents challenge him is incredibly endearing. Adding Cranston to the fold is a lot of fun as well, as he easily captures the spirit of a father of a panda like Po. Speaking of fathers, James Hong’s Mr. Ping may be relegated to more comic relief this time around, but there is a wonderful scene between him and Li Shan that continues my thoughts on why he’s probably my favorite character in this series.
A great number of other actors continue to be in on the fun as well. Angelina Jolie Pitt (and most of her children it seems) returns as Tigress, along with Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen and David Cross. Dustin Hoffman is always welcome too and his Master Shifu character provides plenty of what I am sure most of the adult audiences love most about these films.
It is the villain that will likely be a concern to most. While Simmons continues to prove how talented a voice actor he is, one cannot help but think Kai is not as interesting as Tai Lung or Lord Shen. It is not for a lack of trying, as the film begins with a terrific martial arts fight in the afterlife between Kai and Master Oogway (a returning Randall Duk Kim), but his physical and supernatural powers do not exactly translate to the most emotional experience, as far as this series is concerned.
We saw true tragedy in the backstory between Master Shifu and Tai Lung and experienced deep heartbreak when learning what Shen did to Po’s species. Kai’s objectives, on the other hand, seem a little muddy. There is satisfaction in how things transpire; especially during a third act twist that leads to a wonderfully-realized action finale, but it is a bit of a letdown to not be as satisfied with the villain side of the story.
Did I mention this movie is a whole lot of fun though? It really is. The idea of Po learning how pandas really act leads to a lot of great comedy, as well as some wonderfully organic ways to build to some proper action sequences. Kudos to series writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, with help from consultant and executive producer Guillermo del Toro for continuing to build this franchise on what works best in order to reach some logical conclusions.
The film is stunning to look at as well, which nearly goes without saying for animated films these days, but does factor into why these films work. Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni must have worked hard in arranging so many complicated fight sequences and more with the various animation teams, but it all plays quite excellently.
I am not sure where things could go next, based on how this film wraps up, but I will say that Kung Fu Panda is far from overstaying its welcome. These films have been genuine joys to watch, with plenty of creativity to satisfy animation, comedy and action fans alike. Thanks to spirited vocal work, a solid humorous approach and well-crafted action, this is a film entry that puts the series up with Toy Story, as far as animated trilogies are concerned.