Monday, February 1, 2016

Kung Fu Panda 3 Review

Perhaps few franchises have managed to be as surprising in their overall quality as the Kung Fu Panda saga, with the first film being a tonal departure for DreamWorks Animation, going for a more restrained tone (no pop culture references to be found here) and carrying a screenplay far more reliant on characterization than past features from the studio like Bee Movie and Shark Tale. Thanks to its massive box office, a sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2, occurred, and it too bucked convention by being far more than cashgrab sequel. Going darker in its story (the entire premise of this follow-up hinges on panda genocide) allowed for the character of Po (Jack Black) to not just retread his arc from the first film but rather grow in new areas (namely, in overcoming his traumatic past).

So, allow me to get the slightly bad news out of the way; Kung Fu Panda 3 is not a Toy Story 3 level masterpiece. It's a definite step down from its predecessor, but thankfully, we aren't looking at a Shrek The Third or Despicable Me 2 level creative misfire here. Before I get into specifics of what works and what doesn't here, let's briefly examine what kind of premise Po finds himself in this time around. Following up on the cliffhanger ending of the second film, Po meets his biological father, Li (Bryan Cranston), who brings his offspring to a village full of pandas. Here, Po can not only reconnect to his roots but also learns an ancient secret to defeating a new foe named Kai (J.K. Simmons), who is using mystical powers to turn the greatest kung fu masters into his minions.

Unlike the last two films, which carried far more focused premises, the two plotlines in Kung Fu Panda 3 occasionally struggle to mesh together, with much of Po's time spent engaging in panda activities (i.e. sleeping late, rolling down hills, eating tons of food, etc.) not being humorous or entertaining enough to shoo away the nagging feeling that the feature is just killing time until the inevitable confrontation between Po and Kai. A far more egregious problem that emerges in these panda-heavy portions of the film is the reoccurring presence of humor, which is far more relevant in this third installment than it was in the past two adventures.

Not that the past two Kung Fu Panda adventures were relentlessly dour, but a number of the jokes feel more hyperactive than anything else, as if their placement in the movie came about solely because some DreamWorks executive was worried children wouldn't pay attention if the characters weren't dishing out wisecracks every few minutes. Thankfully, the presence of this type of hilarity doesn't come at the cost of the more introspective content, which not only has a major presence here but is also surprisingly well executed. There's a touching scene with Po and his father discussing his deceased mother that's easily among the best scenes in this series, showing how these characters are so damn well developed at this point that I'm getting emotional over a bunch of computer animated pandas.

Jack Black returns once again to voice Po the titular panda, turning in solid work, even if the scripts decision to make Po in early scenes more immature (he acts like a sulking 5 year old kid when his master, Shifu, is explaining the concept of Chi to him) felt super out of place to me. James Hong is still the series secret weapon as Po's adopted father Mr. Ping, managing to go from being a caring father to waxing poetic about how many noodles he could sell at a fancy palace in the space of a singular sentence like no one else's business. As this installments bad guy, Kai, J.K. Simmons, a veteran of voice-acting (he's been doing M&M's commercials for so long now after all!), provides some legitimate menace in his vocals, though as a character, Kai lacks the deeper thematic heft of past Kung Fu Panda bad guys like Tai Lung and Lord Shen. I did like his glowing green knives he's always tossing around though, and Hans Zimmer (returning from the past two features, though this time without his Kung Fu Panda collaborator John Powell) does create a memorable piece of theme of music for Kai.

Perhaps the best attribute of Kung Fu Panda 3 is in how it handles the critical emotional arc of Po's two fathers, Li Shen and Mr. Ping, coming to terms with the presence of another (literal) father figure in the life of their son. It could have been so easy to just have one or both of the fathers become over the top antagonists in trying to earn back the affections of Po, but Mr. Pings reaction to the presence of Li is nicely understated, while Li shows real dedication for his son even in his more misguided actions. If there had been more of that nuance in the film in place of an overabundance of ineffective humor, Kung Fu Panda 3 might have been on par with its mighty predecessors. As it stands, this is still a pretty entertaining movie, one with some solid voice work and luscious animation.

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