When Dreamworks rolls out a third movie in one of their animation franchises the precedent that has been set is not favorable. My criticism may be a tad harsh as only two of the widely popular films have made a second sequel, Kung Fu Panda being the third, but I’m sure we can all agree that Shrek The Third was the worst of those movies and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted showed that those characters had been stretched far beyond their limits. I won’t even begin to include the spin offs from both films, Puss In Boots and The Penguins of Madagascar, again not great movies but narrowly miss the inclusion in the main story. So after all of this mulling in my head, I had low expectations for the next adventure of the Dragon Master Po and his friends.
Again, I catch myself being a bit harsh. The first Kung Fu Panda was a great film, with Jack Black and the rest of the cast really digging into their characters and, really, what a great group around the lead. Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu along with funny guys Seth Rogen and David Cross, it was a formidable plethora of voices all going against the villain magnificently voiced by a favorite of mine, Ian McShane. The second film was quite good as well, trading in villain voices for the also brilliant and yet another favorite of mine, Gary Oldman, so, as I sat down for this third one my low expectations rose to middling. What’s the worst that could happen?
Kung Fu Panda 3 follows Po in a new point of his Dragon Master existance. At the top of his martial arts progression and defending the land in style with his close friends, Po is informed by Master Shifu (Hoffman) that his time of being the student is over and now it is time to be the teacher, as Master Oogway had prophesied when he chose Po as the Dragon Master. This would hopefully allow Shifu to achieve the inner peace needed to control “chi,” the driving force of this movie.
Unknown to Shifu, Po and the rest of the “Furious Five,” an ancient enemy of Oogway, Kai, has emerged from the spirit world intent on stealing everyone’s chi and destroying the world. Po must deal with this as well as dealing with some identity issues that present themselves when his real father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) shows up in the village to reconcile with the son who never knew him. Together, Po and Li Shan return to the secret village of Pandas for the Dragon Master to reconnect with his roots and learn what being a panda is all about.
Well, after all of my unnecessary Kung Fu Panda pondering I found that I really liked this sequel. With a sweethearted core of paternal relationships and the message of self belief, this movie is a very satisfying hour and a half. Jack Black has so much fun as the title character and you also feel all the returning cast settle back into their roles with comfort and even, for some, a little character progression. It’s a little disheartening to hear some people groan at the existence of this film about it being a cash grab or easy paycheck because I think a lot of thought went into this one. This story is needed to show Po growing into the Kung Fu legend he strived to be in the first film.
I’m now going to do something I rarely do and that is recommend the 3D version of the film. My screening was in 2D but I can see the draw for the extra dimension of depth on this film, especially when it comes to the spirit world, which is a beautiful mosaic of floating land masses that the combatants jump from stone structure to structure, smashing through them. It’s quite a spectacle. I also really like the traditional asian animation that happens in the opening credits sequence as well as any storytelling pieces or montages. This element worked well in the last two films and continues to be great in this one.
My only gripe could be that, as much as I enjoy J.K. Simmons in pretty much anything he does, his villainy as Kai doesn’t quite hit the level of McShane’s Tai Lung or Oldman’s Shen. This may actually work in his favor a bit as the recurring gag is that nobody knows who Kai is, being that he’s been banished to the spirit world for a thousand years. Simmons is definitely a heavy these days, now toting an Academy Award, but he has still a little ways to go to be in the conversation of these two British legends.
The charm of Kung Fu Panda 3 is what will make it win in the end. The kids will be absolutely dazzled by the action in this film and the parents will be very happy to be entertained by the film as well, maybe even surprised by it. Will we see a fourth movie? Depending on box office returns, I’d say that anything is possible but given the completion feel of this movie I’d say it’s almost unnecessary to continue. There’s also that spin off thing that Dreamworks thought would work well for Shrek and Madagascar. As far as that goes, no character in this feels strong enough for their own film, as each of their stories seems to pivotally hinge on Po. What would be the point really, besides money?
After the horrible Norm of the North that sullied up the screens earlier this month, I’m happy to say that there is a GOOD animated film for families to see and you won’t be looking for a fire alarm to pull to end your nightmare. A film that seemed questionable with Dreamworks constantly shifting the release date, Kung Fu Panda 3 was a total winner in my opinion and probably the best one yet. This one gets a four out of five from me.