Po is still a charming goof in Kung Fu Panda 3, but his lessons are getting stale
Kung Fu Panda 3 20th Century Fox
Director: Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Screenplay: Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger
Starring: The voices of Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, J.K. Simmons, James Hong, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu and Randall Duk Kim
Rated PG / 1 hour, 35 minutes
January 29, 2016
(out of four)
It's a long-established axiom that you can only watch a clumsy animated panda save the world through martial arts so many times before it begins to get repetitive. So it should come as no real surprise that Kung Fu Panda 3 shows this particular formula starting to give way.
The series as a whole has been a modest accomplishment, frequently charming if unspectacular, making up in personality, action and wit what it lacks in narrative ingenuity. But those charms start to run out once it feels like you're running - or kung-fu fighting - in place, and that's where this third installment finds itself.
Now in his third feature-length story, the genial, good-natured Po (voiced by Jack Black) has basically learned the same lessons three times now - about his identity, about his abilities and limitations, about his soul, about family and duty and heroism. And three times he's saved his people from an exiled, megalomaniacal antagonist. You could say the studio and filmmakers are just sticking with what works, or, less charitably, you could say they're stuck in a rut, and more than content to stay there.
The narrative foundation of the franchise's first sequel, 2011's Kung Fu Panda 2, was Po coming to terms with his relationship with his adoptive father, Mr. Ping (James Hong). Five years later, the foundation of Kung Fu Panda 3 is Po coming to terms with his relationship with his biological father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston), who shows up out of the blue at Mr. Ping's noodle shop and proceeds to shatter Po's dumpling-eating record, reunite with his long-lost son, and escort him to a secret village of pandas on the promise that it is where Po will master his inner chi.
In all three movies, the story has been set in motion by the dramatic resurgence of a previously exiled or imprisoned kung-fu master hellbent on world domination and personified by a muscularly voiced character actor - first Ian McShane's snow leopard, then Gary Oldman's peacock, now J.K. Simmons' yak.
In all three movies, Po is established as a character fully ill-equipped for the task he has been given, only to learn the necessary lesson at just the right time, and discover the courage to overcome his fears.
This is all fine, and Kung Fu Panda 3 is harmless enough, but two separate father/son bonding storylines? Three Hero's Journeys that amount to more or less the same thing? The built-in defense, I suppose, is that learning is never complete, even for kung-fu masters. Even Po's teacher, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), is still learning lessons. Sure. But from a storytelling standpoint, is that really all there is? Must the lessons learned feel so redundant?
The series as a whole is often at its best when it escapes the bounds of reality - that is, even more so than the world of anthropomorphized animals practicing martial arts already does - and that is one of Kung Fu Panda 3's saving graces. The film spends several scenes in a metaphysical realm, a spirit world unofficially governed by Grand Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) and inhabited by the vengeful warrior Kai (Simmons), who has spent his time of spiritual imprisonment defeating fellow masters and absorbing their chi in order to return to, and hold dominion over, the mortal realm.
The spirit world sequences are terrific just for their free-form visual logic, which directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni explore with playful expressionistic gusto. The color scheme is scaled back to just a few key colors, gravity becomes a non-factor, spatial logic gets pushed to extremes, and the action scenes - with characters soaring through blank space, leaping across floating bridges between floating land masses - elaborate cleverly on the wuxia roots of the franchise.
But whenever the story returns to more solid footing, there's a palpable dropoff in both energy and imagination. The characters are still enjoyable, and there's a pleasant-enough banality to a story and a world that by now have just about exhausted their usefulness. It makes sense for DreamWorks to keep churning out carbon copies of a franchise that is such a proven success, but by now, the franchise as-is has reached its potential; achieving anything beyond that would likely require a change in thinking.