Just eight short years ago, hearing a film described as “DreamWorks’s Kung Fu Panda starring Jack Black” would’ve instilled a very specific mental image into one’s head – most likely a negative one – and understandably so. Keep in mind, this was pre-How to Train Your Dragon DreamWorks we’re talking about. Anyhow, once the first film finally reached theaters and audiences got to experience it for themselves, most of us were rather surprised by how pleasant and not horribly obnoxious the film turned out to be. While not a modern classic or anything, the original Kung Fu Panda was a harmless and rather enjoyable viewing experience, which spawned a much better sequel a few years later, and now we’re already at the third installment in the franchise. And thankfully, we’re treated to a relatively satisfying third entry into the series.
This time around, the plot sees the titular Po graduating from being a student and now is in the role of teacher at the behest of Master Shifu, much to the disapproval of the Furious Five, as well as Po himself. But all the while the ancient warrior Kai has escaped from his banishment in the Spirit Realm and seeks to defeat and enslave all the remaining kung fu masters in the mortal world. And on top of that, Po’s long estranged birth father has finally found him and wants to bring Po back to a secret village where all the remaining Pandas of the land have been hiding out. It seems like a lot for one film to take on, but luckilyKung Fu Panda 3 does a solid job of balancing these main story-lines, as well as bringing back all the developments from the previous two films for a satisfying resolution, resulting in a rousing finale which culminates Po’s character arc in a surprisingly impressive manner.
One of the biggest technical factors in these films has once again proven to be a constant positive and negative at the same time, if that makes any sense. I’m referring to the super fast, breakneck pace of these films, consisting of speedy animation and a jovial, high energy sense of pacing that infuses every frame of this trilogy. Three films into the series, and it’s only natural that the franchise has found its niche and decided to stick with it. But this one in particular seems in a hot hurry to rush itself along to the main story highlights with little consideration for characterization during the first act. Heck, Po’s emotional reunion with his birth father occurs a whopping fifteen minutes into the film, and by the thirty minute mark we’ve already had three significant combat sequences. While this sort of breakneck speed is somewhat understandable for a film aimed at relativity younger audiences, it’s a fault that didn’t plague the previous two films, which moved forward at a more even-tempered and steady pace.
Another thing that’s always been a consistent detriment with these three films, and has oddly yet to be rectified this far into the franchise, is how underdeveloped and one note the supporting players tend to be; particularly that of the Furious Five, though this also extended into other side characters as well. Each one of Po’s major comrades is given a neat design and instantly recognizable celebrity to provide the voice talent, but aside from Angelina Jolie’s Tigress, none of them ever really seem to register as individual personalities. People like Lucy Lu, Jackie Chan, and Seth Rogen sure must be enjoying the easiest paychecks of their careers by having about half a dozen lines in each film. Point being, that while it’s understandable that a series named after a panda focus mostly on the panda in the lead role, a little extra time spent developing his teammates one-on-one rather than having then all blend together as a whole unit would seem like a high priority. Certainly not a deal-breaker, but it’s something that’s been been a blemish on this series since day one.
All in all, Kung Fu Panda 3 is another satisfactory entry into this constantly surprising film series. While it’s not as much of an unexpected pleasure as the first film, nor does it reach the unexpected dramatic heights of the second, it’s still a perfectly harmless way to spend 90 minutes at the theater. If this really is the last we see of these characters and this universe, then it was a journey well worth taking and a must see for fans of the previous two flicks. What else is left to say but… skadoosh!