Three movies in, the Kung Fu Panda franchise is looking more beautiful than ever. Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, along with their team of animators at DreamWorks, have created perhaps the most gorgeous of the films yet, utilizing excellent CG/3D work and switching occasionally to a 2D, more hand-drawn look for flashbacks. The colors and compositions are striking throughout, and the character work is truly vibrant and detailed, giving the animals that populate the film real life and texture in addition to visual depth.
It’s too bad, then, that the movie otherwise has that air of a rote installment in a series that is merely trying to stretch itself into as many entries as it can. Kung Fu Panda 3 is not terrible, but it’s not terribly exciting either, and while the overly complicated script adds some new wrinkles and characters to the ongoing story of our panda hero Po (a returning Jack Black), there’s a contrived feeling to it all that keeps it from being the truly emotional story that the screenwriters (Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger) perhaps thought they were telling.
The movie opens with a battle in the spirit world between kung fu master/ancient turtle Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim) and bull creature Kai (J.K. Simmons), who were once friends – not to mention master and apprentice – but have now been enemies for some 500 years. Kai captures Oogway’s chi – his spiritual essence (also known as the Force in some parts of the universe) – and adds it to his collection of chi captured from other kung fu masters, which he freezes into jade statues that he control as his own personal army.
That army in tow, Kai crosses back to our world, where he goes in search of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) so he can snatch his chi away as well. Shifu, meanwhile, is just about ready to retire as kung fun teacher, telling Po that the duty now falls to him to continue the education of his friends in the Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross) as well as new recruits. But Po has a new complication in his life: the surprise return of his real father, Li (Bryan Cranston), who takes his son to a hidden enclave of pandas (hinted at in 2011’s Kung Fu Panda 2) where Po can become a master of chi in time to defeat Kai.
This is busy stuff even for a grown-up movie, and while the directors keep things moving at a decent clip, the story also has the weird effect of bogging down as nothing seems to really have enough time to resonate. The tale also goes through the familiar tropes of having Po be The One chosen by destiny to defeat Kai, and pays lip service to spiritual mumbo jumbo about “becoming one’s best self.” Laudable goals for anyone, but the kind of thematic fallbacks we’ve seen in countless movies before this one.
The cast, which also includes Kate Hudson, James Hong and many other recognizable names, is impressive on paper, but no one gets a whole lot to do outside of Black, Cranson and Simmons. Luckily Black is engaging to listen to even when he’s dressed (in CG, that is) as a big, bulbous panda; while a good actor in his own right, Black was born to play cartoon characters. His charm and endlessly inventive line delivery make a lot of Kung Fu Panda 3 pass by harmlessly enough, but adults may be sneaking glances at their smartphones even if the kiddies are sitting rapt beside them.
The themes of families coming together and believing in yourself no matter what are all adequately handled, and there’s always been something agreeably zany about a panda becoming a martial arts warrior. But it’s also clear that there’s really no story left to tell at this point and no more moves left for these cuddly martial artists to make. Any more installments and the Kung Fu Panda brand will lose whatever chi it has left.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is out in theaters today.