It’s post-Oscar season movie time! That inevitable season when the major studios helpfully fill up theaters with numerous counterprogramming choices, by which I mean flicks that will never, ever win quality-based awards but might just make a buck or two off those moviegoers who couldn’t care less about the overwrought film-award pomposity. Usually when you see an animated release on the post-Christmas slate, it’s one that was made overseas for twenty bucks that would’ve gone to straight-to-video if the studio weren’t desperate for some first-quarter earnings on their P&L sheets.
So I was surprised to see Kung Fu Panda 3 dumped into a wintertime slot. I barely remember anything about the second one except an impressive ship crash and Gary Oldman’s lame evil peacock, but the original was an eye-popping martial-arts spectacular that proved to be one of Jack Black’s best-ever vehicles and one of my top five Dreamworks Animation films to date. I was hoping the third would be more like the first.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Master Po, the prophesied Dragon Warrior, is still enjoying happy village life until a pair of disruptions damage his calm: the sudden reappearance of Bryan Cranston as his long-lost deadbeat dad Li, yearning to reconnect with the son he abandoned and to introduce him to others like himself, and all the fat jokes they entail; and the emergence of J.K. Simmons as an intimidating yak warrior named Kai who’s crossed dimensions and defeated every master along his path toward a death-match with our pal Po. Can Our Villain be stopped in his tracks by the combined might of Our Hero, his fancy-footed friends in the Furious Five, and an entire village of defenseless overeaters?
Well, okay, yeah. We’re sure Po can have Kai for breakfast and still have plenty of room for noodles and dumplings. Doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The entire gang is back from the first two films! Adopted dad James Hong, Dustin Hoffman as his sensei Shifu, Randall Duk Kim (the Matrix Reloaded Keymaker) as his sensei’s sensei Oogway, and the entire Furious Five — Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, David Cross, and Seth Rogen. This expensive-sounding lineup is affordable largely because they each have maybe three lines apiece. Even the biggest A-lister can’t command a seven-figure paycheck for a part they can record at home in fifteen minutes in their PJs.
New to the world is Kate Hudson as Mei Mei, a panda ribbon-dancer who threatens to become a love interest until the movie runs out of room for subplots. Four of the Jolie-Pitt kids have speaking roles, and whosoever among them becomes the most famous entertainer in adulthood shall savor this movie as one of their most fun trivia questions. Watch the movie five or six times and you might just catch then even briefer cameos from The Today Show‘s Al Roker, Seinfeld‘s Wayne Knight, and the Jean-Claude Van Damme as one of several fellow masters we meet from other neighboring villages.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Mostly there’s the basic story of good-vs.-evil — Master Kai wants power, and everyone else has it. The always great J.K. Simmons, revealed in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview as the voice of the Yellow M&M for the past several years, puts every possible ounce of personality into an angry guy who thinks he should rule and hates it whenever people fail to recognize him as world-famous. Kai is clearly on the road to becoming President.
At first the weight of the film is on Po and Li exploring their severed father/son relationship. Li took a couple decades to overcome his guilt and put in the detective work to track down his offspring. Some bonding occurs, but what sends Po reeling even harder is the shock of discovering he’s not the only panda in his cinematic universe. Once Li escorts him to his own home village, Po’s excited to explore the nature of his very species identity, which never occurred to him over the past two movies because being raised by a stork restaurateur taught him to turn a blind eye to such differences. What once was played as comedy ignorance takes on a new dimension as Po finds himself with two very different dads in his life.
Meanwhile on the kung-fu front, Master Shifu has been encouraging Po to make the transition from star pupil to teacher. Because once you’ve learned all there is to know at your current level of mastery, sometimes teaching others is the best way you can finds new lessons to learn and develop new skills and qualities you never knew you lacked. If you can pass on your wisdom to future generations in hopes that they’ll become one-tenth as awesome as you are, so much the better.
Po hates the idea and proves horrible at it at first (and the Furious Five suffer hilariously in their first day at the School of Po), but as Shifu puts it with Zen-like grace, “If you only do what you can, you will never be more than you are.” Every teacher has to start somewhere, often with failure. Then it gets better.
Nitpicking? Coming into this series, you accept a few compromises. There will be kiddie body-function gags. There’ll be punchlines that are just worn-out jokes from other movies and social media (“I think I just peed a little!” is pretty much over). There’ll be fat jokes because pandas are fat and oh boy isn’t it funny when the fat guy tries to do nonfat things. It’s not quite Po Blart: Panda Cop, but all three movies frequently toe the line between laughing at and laughing with Jack Black. It helps that Po is a fuzzy, lovable lug whose optimism and innocence inevitably lead to victory every time. You get the sense that the movies aren’t trying to be mean about his rotundity, but they’re also not pretending it’s not there.
Thing that bugged me most: Li’s reasons for ditching his son are covered in a vague flashback that’s never fully elaborated, either because they’re holding more backstory for another sequel or because someone thought “I was threatened and had to run for it” was reason enough. Li’s reasons for taking decades to reach out and find his son boil down to “because reasons”. (I had this same issue with How to Train Your Dragon 2. It’s like some Dreamworks exec is a negligent parent ordering his company to keep making apology letters to his son until they’re on speaking terms again.) Po forgives instantly because that’s how big his heart is, but this storytelling cop-out leaves Li’s background incomplete and unsatisfying. Once we meet the other panda villagers, Dad blends into the background and becomes just part of the crowded ensemble.
So what’s to like? Animal kung-fu! Zippy fight scenes! Wacky comedy! Jack Black being Jack Black! Wondrously painted vistas in a variety of palettes and styles. Award-winning actors lending the material no small amount of gravity. And one especially tense sequence between Kai and the Furious Five that showcases all the series’ strengths in animated drama and choreography alike.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is a cheery way to spend ninety action-packed minutes with your kids or friends at the theater, a not-bad sequel that’s better than the second one and not even trying to overtake the original. It fleshes out slightly more of Po’s world and his life story, while laying a few hints for future installments. I assume there’s more to learn about Po’s dad and his late mom, for starters. But the movie struggles to obey the twin studio edicts of “Keep it short” and “Give us more merchandising characters” and consequently feels a little shallow for it.
(In some alternate non-overstuffed venue, I actually wouldn’t mind seeing more of those other masters — not just the Furious Five, but other newcomers like Master Croc and potential breakout star Master Chicken, who show up just long enough to pose for toy companies. Master Po may rule the movies, but it’d be nice if his friends and peers could have bigger shares of talking and butt-kicking.)
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Kung Fu Panda 3 end credits, though anyone who loves “Kung Fu Fighting” covers can stay and thrill to yet another, because I have a feeling those will never not be a thing with this series. There’s also the official KFP3 theme song that features Chinese rap breaks by Jay Chou, mostly known to American audiences as Kato in Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet.