It’s hard to imagine DreamWorks’ evergreen Kung Fu Panda series ending anytime soon considering the studio’s recent restructuring and ever-growing business in China, but for the moment Kung Fu Panda 3 can certainly be taken as the capstone of a film trilogy to date. This time it’s not mastery of any martial art but mastery of self that challenges our hero, while the film seems to prioritize resolving lingering matters from the prior two films rather than building on them.
Having earned his place as the Dragon Warrior of legend and achieved inner peace as of Kung Fu Panda 2, Po the Panda is understandably fulfilled with his lot in life as a bonafide Kung Fu Master and ascended fanboy of the martial arts. However, Po is inevitably thrust upon a new challenge when Master Shifu abruptly announces his semi-retirement and makes Po his successor, which puts the Panda in the position of playing teacher to the comrades of the “Furious Five” that he once worshiped. Po’s flailing failure of a first session and a fortune cookie lecture from Master Shifu about Po’s need to truly understand himself gives Po fresh doubts, but his introspection is quickly cut short by events. First, Po’s long-lost Panda father Li Shan comes wandering into town and joyfully reunites with his son, having followed the “message from the universe” about Po’s survival at the end of the second film. Secondly the kung fu masters of China face an existential threat from the return of Kai, a one-time friend great Master Oogway that became a power-hungry brute upon discovering the rare ability to steal Chi and control jade doppelgangers of even the greatest warriors. Only a master of Chi can hope to take on Kai and save his victims before he’s too powerful to stop, and Master Shifu deduces from an ancient scroll that the Pandas of old knew the techniques. A quest and homecoming ensues for Po, as Li promises both Chi training and education about Pandahood if Po comes to the secret Panda village he calls home.
Kung Fu Panda 3 gets the job done as a sequel, once again combining some of the best fight choreography you’ll find anywhere with a visual style that still finds ways to take your breath away at both action-packed and quieter moments. Also familiar is its ongoing vacillation between irreverent humor and exalted moments, finely honed to the point that Kung Fu Panda 3 gets to eat its cake and have it too with the story and with Po. He’s a goofy, absurd character that doesn’t take the world or himself too seriously, but the situations that call for seriousness get it. It helps that Po has his most formidable adversary yet in Kai, who has every bit of Tai Lung’s ferocity accompanied with even greater power. The film also involves welcome cameos from Master Oogway and substantial exploration of his history, which not only explains the origins of Kai’s vendetta but offers sensible and satisfying context for why Po was chosen to be the Dragon Warrior in the first place.
In this adventure, Po’s friends mostly take a backseat in favor of the movie exploring family ties, as Po’s adopted father Mr. Ping tags along on the journey out of a misplaced fear that his adopted son will forget him after discovering both his true father and more of his own kind. Meanwhile Li shows Po a way of life rather different from what he’s experienced, although the film regrettably delivers a half loaf on these issues and makes Po’s internal struggles seem almost trivial compared to the second film. There Po had to come to terms with his tragic separation from his family, and ultimately become stronger for facing memories of that trauma. Here, the film seems to want to echo the “two worlds, one family” theme from Disney’s Tarzan without putting in the thoughtful narrative building that made it so effective. Time and again we hear Po’s supposedly challenged by the fundamental question of “who am I?” yet he never entertains a choice between his two fathers or his two homes. His fellow Pandas practice unique customs that are new to him, yet Po is simply interested or excited by them rather than alienated. Li himself is basically an older, wiser, and even hungrier version of Po, and only an unfortunate secret uncovered threatens to drive a wedge between father and son. Without genuine tension being shown on-screen rather than being merely asserted, Po’s eventual rejection of making an either/or choice between different aspects of his life comes across as an admittedly positive answer to an unasked question.
On a brighter note, the film does manage an effective message on individuality through Po’s struggles with teaching, which become serious when events bring Kai to the Pandas’ doorstep and Po is challenged to train them into a fighting force. On this count Shifu is a genuine font of wisdom, answering Po’s protests that he can’t teach like Shifu with the declaration that is goal is to make Po the best version of himself. This echos an understated lesson dating back to the first film, where Shifu trained Po to fight by exploiting his eccentricities and understanding his personality rather than pushing him to be the different “ideal” student he wanted.
Ultimately Kung Fu Panda 3 is more of the same, which is no bad thing considering that means a genuinely superb mixture of endearing comedy and thrilling action that’s not easy to come by. Along with How To Train Your Dragon, this is a film series that has shown the DreamWorks studio at its very best through both good and dire times, and one can only hope it will at least carry on their example in one way or another – preferably with at least as much showing as telling the next time.