Kung Fu Panda 3 movie full length review - Beautiful but Narratively Stuck in Suspended Animation
Kung Fu Panda 3 is the third in a franchise that is said to ultimately comprise of six films. In the first one, our protagonist Po (Black) realizes his potential as the Dragon Warrior.
In the second, Po comes to understand his mysterious past and finds inner peace. In this movie, Po comes to understand what Chi is and teaches kung fu to a village of pandas seemingly in one afternoon. What is Po going to do next; become the hero of colonial China?
The principle villain in Kung Fu Panda 3 is a spirit warrior by the name of Kai (Simmons). Formerly a friend to Master Oogway (Duk Kim), longtime deceased master of the Jade Palace, Kai steals Oogway's Chi to gain access to the mortal realm and seeks to remove Oogway's name from the history books. Standing in his way are Oogway's former pupils Master Monkey (Chan), Viper (Liu), Crane (Cross), Mantis (Rogen), Tigress (Jolie), Shifu (Hoffman) and Po. Meanwhile Po is visited by his presumed dead biological father Li (Cranston) who insists despite murmurs in the village, that Po come home to the panda village so he can learn to harness Chi which apparently only pandas can do. Shifu the current master of the Jade Palace agrees and delays his retirement partially because the prophecy reveals only a master of Chi can destroy Kai. Also Shifu recently let Po teach a kung fu class to the masters with disastrous results.
The animation is breathtakingly beautiful in this film. The Village of Peace looks as vibrant as it ever did while new images of the panda refuge instantly brings to mind Zhangjiajie National Forrest in all it's glory. What's more, the fight scenes between masters takes advantage of each animal's unique attributes whether they be a mantis, a panda or a porcupine. Throughout the film Kai steals the Chi from different kung fu masters turning them into jade zombies (jombies); the detail work on the jade is an especially impressive as animators had to make it look smooth, hard, pristine yet slightly see-through.
I only wish they worked a little harder on the story which is where the movie takes a fumble. It's not for lack of trying, there is certainly a lot of material. The concept of Chi was never fully explained and remains a nebulous idea throughout the movie. How does this life force work? How can Kai harness it? Why are pandas especially adept to learning how to harness Chi? The fact that Chi isn't even alluded to in previous movies, makes the entire concept (which has a deeply respected history in China) seem like a cheap add-on.
Then comes the largest problem about this entire franchise which, if left unaddressed, will lead to its downfall in further installments. Let's talk about the panda in the room; Po, who just can't seem to grow up. The first movie was a perfect self-contained fable about realizing your own potential. Po was a geeky layabout who faced down a ferocious villain. The second movie, he's still a geeky layabout, only this time he comes face to face with a technological wonder (gunpowder) and defeats a villain that caused mass genocide. You'd think that kind of experience would ground someone yet in the beginning of Kung Fu Panda 3 there's Po, playing with action figures in a bubble bath. The difficulties Po faces in the first act runs contrary to the lesson he learned in Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), and the principal lesson in this installment "be the best you, you can be," feels like an echo to the first movie. There's no new ground broken here, not for the characters, not for the story, not for China.
I sincerely hope the next few movies in the franchise learn a lesson from another Dreamworks tent-pole How to Train Your Dragon (2010). How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) upped the stakes, changed the formula and matured the characters. Hiccup and Toothless are a duo that I feel have learned from one another and will continue to break new ground in other movies. I fear that as audiences get older and nothing new is learned, Po, Tigress and the rest of the gang will be left behind.