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The first Kung Fu Panda was a thoroughly decent film. Sure, the story and comedy were absurdly predictable, but it had a good heart, great animation, and a fantastic cast. Two years later, Kung Fu Panda 2 was released, raising the bar incredibly. Not only did it improve the things that were good about the original — adding stunning choreography, a truly touching story and, perhaps most importantly, Gary Oldman — but it improved on the shortcomings of its predecessor. The story was fantastic, the comedy was on point, and the characters engrossing. It also failed to fall into the pitfall that snags so many sequels, especially family films. It didn’t just retread the story and character arc from the first film. While the first Kung Fu Panda was about Po stepping into the kung fu world and becoming worthy of taking on the mantle of the Dragon Warrior, the second is about him being the Dragon Warrior, and learning to become a master. From the outset, he’s clearly a character who’s been through lots of development, even since the end of the first movie. It then takes that further, giving him both a strong personal story in addition to the martial one, and skillfully tying them together.
So, does the third film live up to the standard set by the second one? Yes and no. The movie definitely moves Po’s narrative forward by the end, but it feels like it takes a few steps back on the way there.
This entry in the series sees Po (Jack Black), the eponymous kung fu panda, tasked by his master (Dustin Hoffman) to learn to become more that just a master of kung fu, but a teacher of it, and to do so by seeking out the answer to who he is. With perfect timing, Po’s father (Bryan Cranston) returns to his life, revealing that neither he nor the rest of the panda species are dead, as was believed. This leads him on a quest of personal discovery, to discover what it really means to be a panda, and to hopefully unlock his true power in time to stop Kai (J.K. Simmons), recently returned from the Spirit Realm and seeking revenge for his banishment 500 years ago.
As you can see, it’s kind of a mixed bag of the first two movies. While Po’s quest for enlightenment is definitely an escalation from the inner peace he was seeking in Kung Fu Panda 2, they feel functionally quite similar, and this execution of it feels less rewarding than the last one. Likewise, Kai feels like a retread of the first film’s villain, Tai Lung (Ian McShane), who was on a quest for revenge after being locked in prison, but this time, with a magic twist to raise the stakes. Fortunately J.K. Simmons, master of blending anger and comedy, brings a lot of personality to the character.
The film seems to have lost a little ground gained by the second one as well. The Po at the start of Kung Fu Panda 3 feels far behind the master he became at the end of 2. In fact, he feels less competent than he was at the start of the last movie. But that may be due to a real lack of being able to showcase his abilities. While the second film opened with a great fight scene to establish the characters, this Kung Fu Panda feels fairly light on the kung fu. Aside from a gorgeous opening scene in the spirit realm, the fights are pretty sparse, both in frequency and choreography. There’s only three or four in the whole film, and aside from the opening one, they aren’t particularly impressive, although they aren’t badly done, either.
What the movie lacks in kung fu, though, it makes up for with plenty of panda. The Kung Fu Panda series has always at its core been about Po’s quest for identity, especially concerning his adoptive father (James Hong), and his role as being the last known panda, so poignantly explored in the last film. These both come into a head in Kung Fu Panda 3, with Po finding an entire hidden village of pandas, and learning to be a part of a culture that’s at the same time both foreign and familiar to him (and with at least one of the writers being of Jewish descent, there’s certainly something interesting to be read into Po’s diaspora).
And while Po’s integration into his heritage is a satisfying story, the standout relationship of the movie is the one between his two fathers. Throughout the franchise, Hong has brought a lot to the character of Mr. Ping, Po’s adoptive goose father. He brings a pure love for the son that had been brought into his life, simultaneously supporting him in his endeavors while dreading that he will eventually lose his son to the world. So when Po’s “real” father comes into his life and whisks him away to a world of people who are like him, discovering a new identity that may not include his non-panda father, complete with a new name different than the one Ping gave him.
Cranston brings immediate pathos to Li, a widower who will do anything for the chance to reconnect with his lost son. It’s in this new relationship, between a father who is afraid of losing his son, and a father desperate to get his son back, that the movie really shines. Their conflict and eventual harmony is an arc that feels very fresh and engrossing.
In the end, despite setbacks, Kung Fu Panda 3 comes to a very satisfying conclusion, both for itself, but also for the journey that Po began in the first Kung Fu Panda. If this franchise is to remain a trilogy, they’ve found a great way to end it. If it continues on, and they retire the conceit of centering the films around Po’s self-discovery, they’re in a great position to move in new and interesting directions, and I’ll eagerly anticipate what they have in store.