I find myself curiously split on DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 3 (available now via digital download and coming to Blu-ray and DVD on June 28, 2016). It is the most technically accomplished of the three movies and arguably the most sophisticated in terms of its plot and its overarching themes. It also manages to build on its predecessors by clarifying and linking together seemingly unrelated events, adding some solid color to the evolution of the heroic title character Po. On the other hand, it is also not strictly necessary and is still noticeably less satisfying than either of its predecessors, and the movie has a bit of trouble supporting all of its various plots.
Like the first two Kung Fu Panda movies, this third installment provides more opportunity for the growth and development of Po (still voiced perfectly by Jack Black) in his role as the fabled Dragon Warrior, especially when confronted by a monstrous bad guy that threatens the peace in China. This time, the bad guy is Kai (J.K. Simmons), a massive water buffalo whose lust for power led Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) to banish him to the Spirit Realm five-hundred years ago. After absorbing the chi of all the kung fu masters in the Spirit Realm (including Master Oogway himself), Kai returns to the mortal world with conquest on his mind. Meanwhile, Po’s father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) suddenly re-appears, much to the chagrin of Po’s adopted father Ping (James Hong), with a promise that he can teach Po ancient panda secrets of chi mastery to defeat Kai.
Kung Fu Panda 3 has the same strengths as its predecessors: ample charm, excellent animation and voice-acting performances, and exceptional creativity in staging its kung fu action sequences. It is unquestionably crowd-pleasing and satisfying on many objective surface levels, and can still split between broad physical comedy and more subtle, character-based humor. I do not want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy it in theaters or revisiting it digitally now. However, Kung Fu Panda 3 also shares many of the same weaknesses as the earlier installments: an underutilized supporting cast, a certain lack of creativity in its plots and themes, and a tendency towards interesting but unnecessary explanations. Kung Fu Panda 2 revealed the origins of Po and how he came to be adopted by Ping, and much of that movie’s emotional heft was provided by Ping’s fears that he would lose his son. Kung Fu Panda 3 follows-up on those same themes by introducing Po’s biological father, and much of this movie’s emotional heft is provided by Ping’s fears that he will lose his son. Again. As before, James Hong steals nearly every scene he’s in as Po’s dotty but loving father, and some of the late-movie interactions he has with Bryan Cranston’s Li are simply marvelous. However, it’s impossible not to notice how this same emotional plot engine has driven all 3 movies by providing only minor variations on the same theme.
Similarly, the threat that Kai poses seems like another re-hash of Tai Lung from the first movie, even if J.K. Simmons’ vocal performance is marvelous. There is ample opportunity for some very creative animation and fight choreography from Kai’s fighting style (using his bulk and two giant jade knives on impossibly long chains), but the first movie was more successful in making Po’s ultimate victory over Tai Lung a product of Po’s innate abilities and a lot of very hard work. Po’s immunity to Tai Lung’s chi-based attacks was foreshadowed very early in the movie, but it would do him little good without the hard training he undergoes with Master Shifu. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that Po is ultimately victorious over Kai (there is a franchise to support, after all), but Kung Fu Panda 3 seems to rely far too much on sudden breakthroughs that feel more like plot conveniences than organic growth. When Master Shifu says Master Oogway took 30 years to master a technique early in the film, it’s rather annoying when not only Po but dozens of other characters suddenly master that same technique in minutes, no matter how emotionally cathartic the results are in the end. Mastery of the martial arts does not have shortcuts, no matter how inherently talented you are, and there is no replacement for years of sweat and effort. Kung Fu Panda 3 loses sight of that truth far too often.
One other personal annoyance is the way Kung Fu Panda 3 exploits Chinese culture for a few cheap punch lines. A pair of pandas named “Dim” and “Sum” are bogus Cantonese-based names as compared to the more realistic ones for all the other characters in the movie (even if Master Shifu and Master Oogway’s names are a bit more literal than they probably should be). In an otherwise normal action-comedy American movie, two characters named “Crawfish” and “Étouffée” would be jarring in the same way. One of the bonus features that examines the Po-themed posters in the background of Ping’s noodle shop also goes for a cheap joke based on the Chinese characters written on it, which also inadvertently makes one doubt whether Po can read (and, for what it’s worth, the literal translation of the four characters 神龍大俠 is “divine dragon big knight,” not “supremely awesome panda awesomeness”). Why go through the trouble of coming up with a perfectly legitimate translation of Po’s title only to dump it for a laugh? Are these minor points? Sure, but I question the intellectual honesty of basing an entire movie franchise around Chinese culture only to ignore it when it becomes inconvenient or there’s an opportunity for a cheap laugh. Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra managed to derive lots of punch lines over seven seasons of TV without any of them being at the expense of the cultures being borrowed from.
The iTunes digital copy of the movie (which is also available on Vudu and Google Play) comes with a fine high-definition rendition of the feature. One interesting feature is that scene selection is divided up by theme (specifically: Chi, Kung Fu, Foe, Family, and Dragon Warrior), in addition to the movie file’s innate chapter stops. There is a small selection of bonus features (only available in iTunes and when connected to the Internet). “Everybody Loves a Panda Party” is a music video short that re-appropriates the 70’s hit song “Kung Fu Fighting” again; it comes in both normal and a karaoke-style versions. A second short, “Panda Paws,” involves an audition with the ribbon dancer Mei Mei and baby panda Bao that starts as a competition and ends in a lot of comedic mayhem. It’s not bad. “Make a Panda Party Paper Pal” is an origami lesson using a paper template available at dreamworkscreate.com. “Play Like a Panda” mixes in lessons about real pandas (based on research trips the crew took to a panda sanctuary in China) and how they inspired specific elements in the film. It’s surprisingly informative for its 4-minute length. “The Origin of ‘Skadoosh'” is an entirely superfluous explanation of Po’s catchphrase that is at least thankfully short, mostly an excuse to recap highlights from the first two movies. “Faux Paws” are a collection of three deleted scenes, introduced by co-directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni and in various states of completion. The last bonuses are an art gallery and the original theatrical trailer.
Kung Fu Panda 3 has a lot to recommend it, but still feels a little unnecessary in the end. The franchise has always relied more on execution than originality, and there’s not very much actively wrong with the execution that we get. Even so, there’s more repetition than there should be, and all the links back to prior events feel more like gilding the lily than contributing something truly substantial. There are enough flaws in it to keep me from the same full-throated endorsements that I gave its predecessors. It’s enjoyable but curiously unmemorable.