I’m not entirely certain people were itching for a third Kung Fu Panda. The first two films were fine films, but they weren’t the timeless classics that the Toy Story movies were. Plus this is a Dreamworks Animation joint which can be really awesome (How to Train Your Dragon 2) or really awful (Shrek Forever After). How does this entry compare? Read on…
We once again find ourselves in the company Po the Panda (Jack Black), the Dragon Warrior and protector of the Hidden Village…despite being a total goof. For this installment, he’s been tasked by his master to take the final(?) step of his training as a kung fu warrior: to be a teacher. Of course he cocks it up on the first go, but this whole idea gets sidelined when 1) Po’s real father (played by Brian Cranston) finds him and 2) an evil warlord named Kai (J.K. Simmons) returns from the Spirit World to destroy the world. All three of these story lines blend (sort of) together when Po joins his father in his secret Panda village.
I’m not gonna be a curmudgeon about this film…well not entirely. After all, the animation on this movie is simply drop-dead gorgeous. Dreamworks may not deliver as memorable stories as Pixar, but they can match the esteemed company blow for blow when it comes to making shit look pretty. The fighting sequences are quite impressive, with an effective use of a varying color palette. So for kids, this movie is a real treat for them on their front and they’ll be unlikely to be bored. Hell, just yesterday heard some kids arguing in a grocery store on who got to be the “Dragon Warrior,” so the series certainly has staying power with the little ones.
The only problem is that the animation is the only thing Kung Fu Panda 3 has going for it. First off, Po hasn’t changed a bit since he premiered seven and a half years ago in the first Kung Fu Panda. He’s still a clumsy goof who behaves like a fanboy of all the kung fu masters in China despite the fact he’s widely regarded as the greatest warrior in the entire world. And it’s a bit odd that this character has not been allowed to grow at all in this entire time.
Let’s take Woody and Buzz from Toy Story. Woody starts the series off in comfort as his owner’s favorite toy when his world is shattered by the arrival of Buzz, a sleeker and cooler looking toy who also believes he’s the real character he’s actually a toy of. By the end of the first movie, they argue and come to grips with their identities as toys to be there for their owner. For the second movie, Buzz is unwilling to give up on his friend who has been going through an identity crisis as being there for his owner for a limited time or to be admired as an icon for decades. And for the final installment, Woody and Buzz have to deal with their owner’s next stage of his life while dealing with a nefarious force as his owner lets them go to be there for another child. That’s called character development.
In the Kung Fu Panda series, all the characters are exactly the same as they were when they first appeared on the silver screen. Their attitude never changes. Their relationships never change. It’s just completely static. It’s not horrible, but it’s not something to praise either. We like to follow characters from sequel to sequel because it’s each film is another step in their lives. Perhaps the best example of this sort of long-term development can be found in the Harry Potter series. So it’s a shame that Kung Fu Panda has had all these great examples for years to look to for inspiration, but Dreamworks has failed to capitalize on their successes to deliver a very safe, predictable sequel.
Even if Dreamworks’ writing department is lazy, at least the actors they spend millions of dollars on show up to work every day. Jack Black is, as ever, entertaining and charming as Po, even if the fanboy shtick gets a little old sometimes. Even Brian Cranston manages to be a believable father to Po as he struggles in the position with James Hong’s Mr. Ping (a goose…who Po never once questioned why a goose was his father), who has own share of feelings of inadequacy to get over through the film. But you also have the voice talents of Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Kate Hudson, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and J.K. Simmons…and the film simply does not have enough material for any of these actors to work with.
It’s a bewildering they would bring these very expensive actors and actresses in to record less than 15 lines each. But it’s also indicative of the priority for Dreamworks to brag about the “stars” they can attract rather than craft a fun story. Hell, they don’t even give J.K. Simmons enough to do as the big bad. And keep in mind, Simmons cemented himself as an Academy Award-winning villain for his turn in Whiplash. But Kai, despite having a frightening and intimidating power, is a total punk.
Kai constantly gets belittled by almost every single character, so no one regards him as a threat. Hell even his motivation isn’t that special, he just wants to destroy everything his former best friend built with the Hidden Valley and the legacy of the Dragon Warrior. There’s nothing more to it than “I just want to destroy everything.” Compare to that to Kung Fu Panda 2, which had a freaking peacock as it’s main villain, but Lord Shen was a tragic figure who was so obsessed with power and being defined by a horrid past that both ultimately destroyed him. There was some pathos to him, while Kai has a whole lot of nothing.
But hey at least the rest of the cast managed to push out a bit of personality even if they weren’t that were funny to me. And ultimately, this is a much stronger output from Dreamworks compared to last year’s Home, which I only remember by virtue that I dug it up from my Facebook archives. I know these Kung Fu Panda flicks make kids laugh, and that’s what will make the decision for you to check this out. If you have no kids, wait for this to come out on Netflix. If you do have a kid or two, check this out during the day. Because for great animation techniques, this is a low…