Review by Rob Vaux
It’s easy to overpraise a movie like Kung Fu Panda 3, largely because it’s January and the usual glut of awful horror movies and willfully turgid Oscar contenders tends to fill us with despair. In truth, it’s exactly what you’d expect from the Hollywood sausage machine: following the pattern set forth by its predecessors while adding just enough variation to give it its own identity. After the surprise success of the original Kung Fu Panda, the first sequel did the same thing with diminished results and frankly, Kung Fu Panda 3 isn’t prepared to go any further off the reservation.
That said, it knows itself much better than the second film did. It also finds its humorous tone more easily and lets the characters have a lot more fun than they did in Kung Fu Panda 2. In fact, its reliance on the characters becomes its secret weapon: letting them do their thing and allowing us to tag along for 95 minutes or so that feel remarkably breezy and light.
The series always thrives on a bit of a rope-a-dope. Its titular character (voiced by Jack Black) is round, friendly, a bit of an oaf and way too interested in chow time. And yet he’s also the Chosen One, selected by destiny to save his anthropomorphic animal version of China from threats both great and small. This time, it’s another evil kung fu master (voiced by JK Simmons), back from the Great Beyond and transforming fellow masters throughout China into his jade-encrusted minions. It’s up to Po – with help from his newly-discovered family of fellow pandas hidden in a secret village – to save the day.
That’s pretty boilerplate, but the movie doesn’t leave it at that. It puts in the time and thought to consider why Po might be the Chosen One, despite his roly-poly status. In the first film, it was his layers of fat that made him immune to the villain’s five-finger death move. Here, it’s the notion that he knows himself, or at least has the capacity to know himself, and must find the missing pieces to his identity with the help of his long-lost relations to unblock that power.
That works great in and of itself, but Kung Fu Panda 3 adds another fun wrinkle with one of its most underused characters: Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong), Po’s adoptive goose father, who doesn’t take the return of his biological father (voiced by Bryan Cranston) at all well. Their bickering is quite funny, but also lets Po meditate on his journey through life and the various factors that have gone into his make-up. There’s a quiet wisdom in that, and the film develops it in a gentle way that moves its hero well beyond the fat-slob cliché he might have tumbled into it otherwise.
To that, it adds a lot of comic energy, some funny pratfalls, and a visual style from directors Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh (PS: hooray for putting another woman at the helm of an animated feature) that simultaneously evokes and sends up the wuxia pictures that came before it. That makes it a rollicking good time, with the hijinks never descending into the crude and Black’s comic timing further endearing us to his sweet, funny protagonist. Hollywood product it may be, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not if the filmmakers invest the time and energy into maximizing their assets instead of just using the title as an excuse to take our goodwill for granted. The original Kung Fu Panda knocked us through the wall with that equation. After the slightest of dips with the second film, this one returns to form and makes January at the movies a little brighter as a result.