And so we come to the end.
The Kung Fu Panda trilogy ended oddly quietly in 2016. The gross was decent if unspectacular. The film likely lost some steam due to opening in January rather than the summer bows of the earlier films. The extended time between 2 and 3 likely also cost it some energy. It wasn’t an epic bomb or success. Just a quiet little hit and it’s faded from memory. I missed the film in theaters and likely would have continued to do so if not for the commission to write on it.
But this isn’t a farewell that deserves to be forgotten. Kung Fu Panda 3 is indeed a lovely caper to a trilogy I have to confess great affection for this series and this film is a great example of why.
The film brings the threads of the series together nicely with Po (Jack Black) facing the threat of Kai (J.K. Simmons), a yak determined to capture the chi of all the greatest warriors for himself. Po must level up even further to defeat him. At the same time his long lost father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) returns. Po initially believes his father and the other pandas of a lost village are great warriors but finds them just the opposite. Po must find the strength within himself to teach them to fight and to achieve his destiny.
KFP3 is a bit of an in between film. It isn’t as ambitious as the preceding film but it isn’t quite as cliche bound as the first film. It’s solidly in the middle and that’s perfectly fine. The film knows plot isn’t what you’re here for but character and animation. And on those fronts it’s a roaring triumph.
The film pays off the growth we got of Po and Mr. Ping (James Hong) in the last film. There is some awkwardness as both are dealing with the intrusion of Po’s birth father but there’s also a lot of warmth as Li Shan treats Ping accurately with gratitude. There’s also an honest evolution to Po as he starts to move beyond his need to punch and fight and evolves into a teacher. It’s a real growth I appreciated.
The animation continues to be almost absurdly pretty. This is a color feast with an almost watercolor feel. The movie continues the franchise’s deep stylization with 2D animation mixed into flashbacks and use of panels throughout. There’s also a nice mix as the film uses both sharp, lush images and great cartoon work for the characters. Po is as elastic as ever. And the action? It remains almost impossibly stellar.
Voices are decent here but I’m never letting DreamWorks off this hook for overcasting with stars. Thankfully most of the work is strong. Jack Black can’t fail to entertain and sells Po’s doubt. Simmons is doing his usual over the top work that won him an Oscar but it’s incredible work so I’m happy. Cranston utterly kills as a slightly bleak version of his character from Malcolm in the Middle who has a manchild persona but lives with grief. I will say that I’ve always been allergic to Kate Hudson and she’s extremely miscast here. And once again I can tell Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie were just here to collect checks.
I do also have to slightly raise my ire about the cliched nature of the script. This does move things along but it also puts us back in the everyone is special message of not just the first film but The Lego Movie whose climax this shamefully lifts. I don’t know, I’m just tired of it and it didn’t feel any newer here. I also really don’t need another film where a character tells a well meaning lie. It’s just a ticking clock to the reveal. These are admittedly the opinions of a 37 year old man about scripting for kids movies. Feel free to discard.
But overall I really have to say I loved these films. These are three genuinely warm, good hearted films with some of the best animation in mainstream cinema. They’re bold films that dealt with another culture and instead of patronizing it actually bent over backwards to respect it. They’re a gift. Highest recommendation.